Fifteen meters in the air, lying on their bed and looking at monkeys and macaws overhead, Michael Cranford and his girlfriend, Rebecca Amelia, aka “Blondie,” enjoy their dream tree house that took two years, more than 1,000 hours of drawing and countless different approaches to construct.
“A pitcher of margaritas in Boquete (a mountain town in western Panama), followed by a bar napkin sketch and a roll of masking tape on the floor of our hotel room in Panama – that’s how this whole thing started,” Cranford says. “And now look at it.”
Nestled in the rain forest about 20 minutes north of Puerto Jiménez on the Southern Zone’s OsaPeninsula, the Swiss Family Robinson-esque Lapa’s Nest Tree House winds five stories around a guanacaste tree, though it doesn’t touch the tree at all. The five floors are accessible by a gorgeous wooden staircase that winds around the trunk of the tree.
At ground level, amid the tree’s roots, is an outdoor shower that ensures bathers never miss a wildlife-viewing opportunity.
The next stop is the Monkey Room, complete with a queen-size bed and a small library.
The third floor features some comfortable chairs offering a view of a neighboring tree a few meters away. A half-bathroom with a beautifully painted porcelain sink connects to the Surf room containing another queen-size bed. This room is also Cranford’s art studio, and doubles as a game room when families come to stay.
The fourth floor boasts the largest space and has a fully equipped kitchen, a lounge bed off to the side and a television and DVD player.
An easily manageable ladder leads to the fifth and top floor, where a full bathroom with a glass-bottom shower offers a view all the way down to the roots of the tree.
The bedroom features a unique vista of the canopy overhead, where monkeys scurry above sleepers in the king-size bed.
All five levels are beautifully furnished and decorated, with a natural wood theme throughout. The house can sleep six people comfortably and has a completely open-air design except for the bedrooms, which are screened to keep the insects to a minimum.
Perhaps even more impressive than the splendor of the tree house itself is the long road to its construction, and the fact that it was made with no damage to living trees or the surrounding environment.
Cranford, 44, bought the property 11 years ago and has been living there for nine years, initially in a two-storey house about 100 meters from the tree house.
After his initial cocktail-napkin sketch, Cranford spent two months painting the tree house he envisioned.
“When I finished and realized how much fun it had been painting it, I said to myself, ‘If I had this much fun painting it, how much fun would it be to actually build it?’” Cranford says.
Two years later, he lives in and rents out his tree house.
Feet on Ground
Cranford started his design with the typical belief that “a tree house can’t touch the ground,” and spent approximately 200 hours working on a design that hung from the tree.
In a moment of frustration, he realized he had made it too complicated and headed back to the drawing board to start over. His second design would have worked, he thinks, but it included touching the tree, which was not part of his ideal plan.
“It required me to close my eyes and drill a hole into the side of the tree,” Cranford explains, “which was against my morals and principals, because the tree house represents living in harmony with nature.”
Cranford was struggling with how to alter the plans when a somewhat painful experience inspired him to launch his third and final design.
“The fire ants were the ones who helped me see with clarity what I needed to do,” he says. “I was going over plans for the second design, looking up into the tree and scratching my head while the fire ants were scurrying up my body. When they finally blew their whistle, I feel to my knees in pain, and realized I was looking at these big roots I had been walking over for three months but never thought of as part of the design.
“It was then I realized the strength of the tree lay in its roots, not its canopy.”
Cranford used a piece of rebar to investigate the area around the root buttresses and found they made a perfect five-pointed star, with exactly two meters and 10 centimeters between each root buttress.
“At that point I finally realized I needed to let go of the belief that a tree house cannot touch the ground,” he says.
Build, Break and Rebuild
Acquiring enough naturally fallen wood for the design was a lengthy process that used no motorized vehicles. Cranford and Amelia found the wood during their frequent walks around and outside their property.
On one such walk inside the neighboring Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve, they found a fallen guayabo coloradotree large enough to provide most of the wood they needed. (In total, approximately 14 types of hardwood, all from naturally fallen trees, are used in the tree house, in addition to recycled wood and bamboo.)
After waiting a month for the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) to approve their use of the tree, they hired a local deaf man, Bolívar Sánchez, to carry each block of wood out by hand. Some days he worked only a couple of hours, while others he worked all day long, carrying the 120- to 150-pound, chain-sawed blocks from the reserve to the construction site. It took three months to carry out all the wood, Cranford says.
For logistical reasons, Cranford decided to build the entire house on the ground before lifting it into the tree. He says it took about a month to prepare the wood, two months to build the first floor and another month to build the second.
“I knew the minute construction moved from the ground into the tree, production speed would decrease by half,” Cranford says.
Once the structure was completed on the ground, they labeled and numbered every piece of wood before disassembling the house, only to put it back together again high in the air. The entire home was built with the help of only one carpenter and one assistant, as well as a few extra helpers hired to move the wood when it was being hoisted into the air.
Cranford had to work out a few tree-house-specific details, such as keeping rain from entering the house while making sure wind could pass through it.
“In order for a tree house not to have unexpected movement, it needs to be aerodynamic, just like the wing of an airplane,” Cranford says. “Thus our angled walls (22 degrees), so when it rains at an angle during a storm, the rain passes through or under the house, but doesn’t come in.”
A Childhood Dream Come True
After about a year and a half of construction, Cranford and Amelia can finally lie in their king-size bed, high in the air with the monkeys.
Cranford calls the completion of his tree house the realization of a childhood dream.
“That’s what tree houses really are: childhood dreams,” Cranford says. “But to a child, a tree house usually represents an escape from things you don’t understand – sisters, brothers, parents, teachers and all the weirdness of growing up. In a tree, you can escape into the air and try to figure stuff out for yourself.”
Cranford and Amelia say they have spent days up in the tree house without touching the ground. An artist, Cranford set up his easel in his studio on the second floor. With this, plus all the amenities of a regular household, there’s no need to come down, he says.
“I’m trying to create a new lifestyle of canopy living, where you live with nature, eye-level with nature, in an environment that doesn’t take away from natural resources to build a home,” Cranford says.
Tree House for Rent
Lapa’s Nest Tree House, set in 24 hectares of rain forest and only 15 minutes away from some of the OsaPeninsula’s nicest beaches, can be rented by the week. Guests have access to three kilometers of trails, guided rain-forest hikes, a spring-fed pool and help with any travel arrangements. The price for one week is $2,200, or $1,800 during the rainy months between August and October. The house is also available for longer-term rentals for artists, photographers or bird-watchers at a discounted rate.
For more information, e-mail [email protected], call 8378-3013 or visit www.treehouseincostarica.com.