Ever wondered what goes into designing and building magical treehouses, like the famous Eagles Nest Treehouse at Salmon Creek Ranch in Bodega Bay, CA? We talked to Will Beilharz, the founder, CEO and lead designer for ArtisTree, a treehouse design and construction company that co-built of the much loved Hipcamp site. (Ken Huck was the lead designer, builder and creator of this amazing space!)
If you haven’t seen the movie Captain Fantastic, it’s a must-watch, beautiful, comical, indie-tear jerker we highly recommend. In it, a hippie jack-of-all-trades dad raises his kids in the Oregon forest, teaching them to live off the land and connect with nature and ultimately their truest selves. Ignoring the plot line, Will’s upbringing was kind of like Captain Fantastic. In 1988 when Will was six, his family moved to an 88-acre off-grid organic farm outside Austin, TX. It was then that Will learned how to live off the land—and about the potent impact that he directly had on the world and nature around him. Helping his father build the Mongolian Yurt his family of six grew up in, he began honing in on his practice of biomimicry—the architectural practice of replicating the design and energy patterns inherent in nature because of their innate efficiency and elegance.
Several years later in 2012, Will founded ArtisTree, which has flourished in eco-resort design with several sustainable treehouses and other off-grid tiny home like structures around the world. From the Hipcamp location in Bodega Bay, Lava Fields in Hawaii, beaches in Mexico, and the beautiful hill country of Texas, ArtisTree has spread its roots to show love of bringing people closer to nature and their surroundings.
Tell me about your upbringing and how it relates to your work?
I didn’t really know until about 5 years ago when I started ArtisTree that I was going to use anything I had learned in my upbringing. At the time, I thought it was useless information because I was a little kid, I wanted to be with my friends, hang out with girls, go to the movies. It was interesting when I started ArtisTree that I started to understand the gifts that I had been given—learning to build around nature, design with nature, with the seasons and with the cycles that were naturally occurring.
Was this a drastic change from where you were living before?
A pretty drastic change. My parents had made a good amount of money in their early 30s. My mom was a Harvard MBA in the startup of the cell phone era. We were well-off. My parents had made it to the top of the pyramid, then thought, “This is it? This is the life we’re going to raise our kids in?”
How did you learn so much about trees?
My family started a zipline canopy tour in 2005. At the time, I thought it was a crazy idea—my parents are absolutely nuts—but ziplines sounded like fun so I started building with the company and I started to actually learn how to build in trees.
Trees are these living entities, living, growing, stretching, moving, continually in motions, even though they look very still for us. I learned how to protect the tree and add a structure to it at the same time. I spent a large portion of my waking hours in huge cypress trees on this property, taking guests through, 8 hours a day, learning about trees year after year, building in different locations around the US from Alaska to Texas to Vermont.
So, I have a decade or more’s worth of experience, practical observational experience, installing tree platforms and treehouses, and seeing how the trees react. I have real data to show tree growth and attachment points that work, which I think is a huge upside to anybody looking to build a treehouse. It takes the whimsical, fantastical dream aspect—and I love that aspect to it—but I bring a lot of ground pragmatism to it too.
What does “designing with nature” mean to you?
Designing in nature means being conscious of the environment around you and creating immersive experience for people. It’s a holistic approach to design—you’re not just looking at people, you’re not just looking a tree. It’s a huge thing that Hipcamp is doing wonderfully: bridging the gap between environmentalists and people. Yea, nature is important, but man is important, too. We’re a part of nature, not separate from it.
How’d you get connected with the Salmon Creek Treehouse project?
Our role in the Salmon Creek Treehouse was as a builder, a subcontractor to the project. A guy named Michael who’s a good friend and also does treehouse design, but doesn’t build treehouses, found Leslie and John from a newspaper clipping featured somewhere in Sonoma County.
I don’t know if you know the story about the original treehouse, but the original treehouse was built in the 80s and was totally falling apart. Michael thought he could fix the treehouse by taking it down and putting it in another tree, instead of rebuilding it entirely.
So, I guess I got connected to it through the merry band of treehouse builders that exists. It’s very much a wild west industry as well as a network of passionate builders.
Walk me through your creative process.
The first step is to really understand who we’re building for as a client and where we’re building as in the site. Often times the site may have a tree already picked out. Other times, the property’s a canvas of trees and we get to go searching for “the tree” and that’s really fun because we’re looking for a soulmate tree to build the treehouse in.
In both cases, it’s about listening to the client and about listening to the land. I find that you learn a lot by asking questions, or just by sitting in a particularly area for multiple days asking questions like, “Where does the sun come up?” “How does it interact with the tree?” “Is there a lot of wind or no wind?” “Is wind advantageous because you’re not going to have to put in AC?” Thinking about these things and how they’re going to interact with the tree. You’re gathering information and listening. It’s what I call a deep listening process.
The next step is the conceptual phase of things—where the dreaming happens…the concept imaging. I pull together all these kind of similarities and start sketching, getting creative with shapes, with forms of the tree, what the feeling’s going to be like, what it’s going to look like, how someone might feel when the look at it.
The next phase is going from the concept to practical, design implementation: how it will fit in the tree. There’s a bit of yin and yang to my design process, where I say, let’s look at both side of the thing and find the middle ground, the Tao, between the creative no limits conceptual aspects and the engineering, real world, financial realities of a project. It’s about merging those two things, and not losing sight of either one.
Then it’s the budgeting phase and we move into the prefab phase. A lot of things are prefabbed off-site prior to moving it onsite.
The creative process for us doesn’t end until the project is over. There’s always creativity coming forth from the builders and from the design team. People are always coming up with new ideas. Someone sees something at an antique shop or junk yard and says, “oh my god, it would be so cool to use this as a table base and we didn’t know where we were going to get the coffee table,” the creative process continues to happen throughout the process in little ways like that.
How many people are on your team?
Four to six people, but it depends on the project. The last treehouse we built was a Make a Wish treehouse and there were only three people on site most of the time. It was a kid’s pirate ship for a boy named Connor and it was only about 200 square feet, and it wasn’t water tight or anything.
What your favorite treehouse that you’ve built?
That’s like asking which of your children you love best! I don’t think I can answer that.
More of ArtisTree’s dreamlike creations will be available on Hipcamp soon. Stay tuned! In the meantime, see some of our other favorite treehouses in the “Camps Featured in this Post” section below. Photos of the Salmon Creek Eagles Nest Treehouse by Julian Bialowas and Lisse Lundin.