An afternoon with HemLoft creator Joel Allen

Uncertain, yet optimistic, future for forest retreat

My feet sink through the sugary spring snow as I follow a lightly-used set of footprints through the trees on the southern slopes of Whistler Mountain. This has to be it. Some time has passed since Easter, but on this sunny Friday afternoon I am out in the woods on an egg hunt of my own.

My destination is the HemLoft, an egg-shaped tree house that in recent weeks has had all the locals talking and has garnered international attention from thousands after being featured in Dwell, a modern architecture publication. Rumours of its whereabouts have been circulating around town, but few have pieced together the clues and set out to actually find it.

article continues below

I have arranged to meet the HemLoft's creator Joel Allen at the site itself, but in keeping with the spirit of his beloved project all he provided was a starting point a few hundred meters away. Being led to this hidden treasure, even by the man who built it, would not do the HemLoft justice.

After making my way up another muddy, slippery slope I finally clamber onto a rocky outcropping. I look ahead and my jaw drops. At first glance the egg shape makes it seem almost alien, but the natural tones of the timber siding blend into the forest - almost as if the old-growth hemlock tree had sprouted the structure. All of this on a steep mossy slope overlooking distant mountains.

I am greeted by the 31-year-old Allen, a friendly fellow wearing winter construction attire of jeans and a black puffy jacket.

"I didn't have an ultimate goal, except to create something cool. That was it," he said, describing his motivation for the project.

"My vision changed as I went along. I initially had not thought of it as a living space, but as a platform. When I got it to that stage it just seemed incomplete, it seemed like it would really transform into a whole different thing if I made it into a space where you could be cosy inside and still be really close to the outdoors with lots of windows."

I am intrigued by how the structure is supported and Allen runs me through the various stages of construction. A level platform needed to be constructed first in order to have an elevated workspace to erect the rest of the structure. From the platform he was able to mount six curved ribs, each 17 feet (5.2 metres) long, weighing 80 pounds and taking 12 hours to make. These enormous masses of laminated plywood had to be constructed with power tools off-site and then carried up to the location where he manhandled them into place one by one.

This process was as difficult as it sounds and, at times, dangerous. Allen points to one of the ribs on the high side of the structure and recalls a close call he had while working solo.

"When I was installing this rib it got hung up on branch above. I was wrestling it off the branch and it slipped off the cleat (catching me) off guard with all the weight falling on me. I got brought over to the edge and I was hanging on for dear life. I was losing my hold while on my tippy toes, so I just pushed it as hard as I could."

The rib ended up falling about 40 feet, hitting a rock and breaking in two. Allen describes that chain of events as a "heartbreaker," but thankfully the remainder of the construction was relatively uneventful.

The finished product as it stands before me is not just a hobby creation waiting for its fate to be decided, but a labour of love that has brought one man's dream to reality. Its location on Crown land is raising some eyebrows on whether it will be allowed to stay, but Allen is fully aware of the chance he took when he made the HemLoft public.

"It will have to come down one day, there's no question, but I think it's got a few years left in it," said Allen.

"I don't want to be public about the location, but I want to be public about the fact that it exists. I felt as if there was some safety in its publicity, that people would get it and endorse it. It's really cool that the people that are finding it are keeping the spirit."

Those who have visited the HemLoft know exactly what Allen is talking about. There is growing support in the Whistler community to keep the HemLoft right where it is and provided everyone who visits remains respectful and keeps the location to themselves, this unique, egg-shaped dwelling will remain - at least for the short term.

Allen has been contacted by carpenters willing to help with the upkeep and he is forming a group of like-minded individuals to help preserve the HemLoft.

"This place needs love like any living thing. And it needs maintenance," said Allen.

"The saddest thing for me would be to see this deteriorating because it's not being cared for."

For more information on the history of the HemLoft go to Joel Allen's blog at thehemloft.com.

© Copyright Whistler Question

Question POLL

Is Whistler doing a better job of co-existing with bears?

or  view results

Popular Question Local