Will Beilharz doesn’t like the term eco-friendly. Having learned how to build shelter and survive off the grid at an early age, the ceo and cofounder of ArtisTree LLC and chief development officer of Artistree Hospitality PBC prefers the term ecological when describing his holistic approach to sustainability. Here he drills down on the principles and process behind his Spicewood, Texas-based treehouse design studio and construction firm’s low-impact work. Beilharz also discussed his philosophy during the “Do Disrupt: Hospitality Beyond the Hotel Room” session at this year’s Boutique Design West (BDwest).
Eco-friendly has been overused in an attempt to greenwash petroleum products. To look at things from an ecological perspective means that we’re doing things that are logical to an ecology rather than “doing less bad.”
To get an ecological view of a site’s biology, history and culture, we look at its development over time, from pre-human influences to the impact people have had. We also look for opportunities for our structures to contribute to the ecosystem.
For example, the whole design of our treehouse The Nest revolves around creating a habitat for local and visiting pollinators. The flowering plants that provide beauty for our guests also create a food source for migrating butterflies. Last year, it was estimated that more than 10,000 monarch butterflies used this habitat as a respite during their journey from Mexico to Canada.
Biomimicry, to me, is really a way to look at design challenges through nature’s eyes. It goes beyond making a building look like a shape found in nature. It’s about understanding why nature built it that way and for what purpose.
For instance, we used biomimicry to design the roof of our treehouses Willow & Juniper (featured in Boutique Design’s May 2016 edition), where the structures required a shelter with an extremely high strength-to-weight ratio. I designed and built the roof to mimic the structure of a leaf because it’s one of nature’s strongest forms. Leaves account for an incredible amount of surface area on a plant, are extremely lightweight and hold up to barrages of wind and rain.
Unlike common building materials, trees are still alive and growing. If incorporated into the design and execution of the project, a living foundation can actually result in a stronger, healthier structure over time. If the design or execution is mismanaged, the structure will either be torn apart by the tree it sought support from, or will end up killing the tree slowly.
Getting to know the species of tree is paramount for a myriad of reasons, including growth rate, lifespan, leaf litter and potential diseases. One important way to ensure a tree stays healthy is by creating a design that allows it to move. Trees need wind and movement to stay fit and flexible, much like human muscles need exercise regularly to avoid atrophy.
Designing low-impact dwellings means acknowledging that most of the built environment has a negative effect on all living systems other than humans. One of the most damaging phases of a newbuild is site clearing and foundation. With treehouses, ostensibly the foundation grew there naturally and is a functioning part of the ecosystem. Given that, we generally avoid heavy machinery and don’t do typical earthwork.
I believe technology has a huge role to play. One tool I’m particularly excited about is photogrammetry software, which allows us to take 3D scans of trees and put them into modeling software at scale, an otherwise nearly impossible task. We use a series of photos taken from the ground and from a drone to capture the size, shape and height of our buildings’ trees, as well as the distance between multiple sets of trees.
From building 40 ft. above ground to constructing projects in multiple countries, I think we’ve faced some pretty complex challenges. During The Lofthaven project outside of Austin, to protect the nearby creek ravine we had to use zip lines to move all the materials from the cliff side to the treehouse.
The biggest design disaster we faced was on The Nest. We realized post-construction that we’d need to install a fire-sprinkler system. We were able to remedy the error, but it was a lot more difficult to retroactively design the system into the treehouse.
One of our most memorable projects was the Playa Viva treehouse in Zihuatanejo, Mexico (a Gold Key Award-winning property designed in collaboration with Deture Culsign, Architecture + Interiors), where the crew would jump into the sea at the end of every day and watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the perks of building and staying in treehouses—they’re usually in spectacular places.