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Perch Perfect

  • In a steep canyon in West Los Angeles sits the Banyan Drive Tree House, built for an artist who also loves nature.

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    In a steep canyon in West Los Angeles sits the Banyan Drive Tree House, built for an artist who also loves nature.

    Eric Staudenmaier

    In a steep canyon in West Los Angeles sits the Banyan Drive Tree House, built for an artist who also loves nature.

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    Eric Staudenmaier

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    As a child, the owner was especially fond of tree houses. But this version is the kind of hideaway that many adults would dream of, complete with an outdoor shower.

    Eric Staudenmaier

    As a child, the owner was especially fond of tree houses. But this version is the kind of hideaway that many adults would dream of, complete with an outdoor shower.

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    Pipe Dream Canted steel columns serve as plumbing for the tree houses powder room, outdoor shower, and sprinkler system.

    Eric Staudenmaier

    Pipe Dream Canted steel columns serve as plumbing for the tree house’s powder room, outdoor shower, and sprinkler system.

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    The tree houses design elements were drawn from earlier house plans that architect Christopher Kempel had drawn up for the artist and her husband. That house never got built, but its spirit and details were able to be realized on a smaller scale that was just as meaningful, with the tree house.

    Eric Staudenmaier

    The tree house’s design elements were drawn from earlier house plans that architect Christopher Kempel had drawn up for the artist and her husband. That house never got built, but its spirit and details were able to be realized on a smaller scale that was just as meaningful, with the tree house.

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    Cedar siding and mahogany floors recall a tree house kind of style, but in a more finished form. Hollow, canted columns serve as support beams for the structure. Theyre also the pipes that supply the tree house with running water.

    Eric Staudenmaier

    Cedar siding and mahogany floors recall a tree house kind of style, but in a more finished form. Hollow, canted columns serve as support beams for the structure. They’re also the pipes that supply the tree house with running water.

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    The tree house is, obviously, too hefty to be attached to an actual tree; instead, it hews close to one. A view port in the floor at the desk area underscores the point nicely. Flush with the floorboards and sturdy enough to roll a desk chair over, the window in the floor reveals the trunk of an Aleppo pine tree over which the Banyan Drive tree house hovers.

    Eric Staudenmaier

    The tree house is, obviously, too hefty to be attached to an actual tree; instead, it hews close to one. A view port in the floor at the desk area underscores the point nicely. Flush with the floorboards and sturdy enough to roll a desk chair over, the window in the floor reveals the trunk of an Aleppo pine tree over which the Banyan Drive tree house hovers.

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    The biggest challenge in building the tree house was where it was sited: in the back corner of a steep lot where earth movers and forklifts couldnt easily be driven in. Architect Christopher Kempel recalls that several builders simply refused to bid on the project.

    Christopher Kempel

    The biggest challenge in building the tree house was where it was sited: in the back corner of a steep lot where earth movers and forklifts couldn’t easily be driven in. Architect Christopher Kempel recalls that several builders simply refused to bid on the project.

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    But Tom Preis was game. The builder had worked with Kempel before, and as soon as he saw the architects drawings, Preis knew he wanted to build the tree house. In over 25 years of being in the business, Id never seen anything like this, he recalls. It didnt scare meI just realized it would take time.

    Christopher Kempel

    But Tom Preis was game. The builder had worked with Kempel before, and as soon as he saw the architect’s drawings, Preis knew he wanted to build the tree house. “In over 25 years of being in the business, I’d never seen anything like this,” he recalls. “It didn’t scare me—I just realized it would take time.”

At first glance, this tree house, nestled in a West Los Angeles canyon, looks like just the kind of project that makes builders say things about architects that aren’t fit for publication in a business magazine. “A few contractors flat-out refused to bid because they didn’t know how they’d build it,” recalls architect Christopher Kempel of Rockefeller Partners in El Segundo, Calif. Small wonder: The lot was in a tight spot on a back corner of a steep property. The structure’s support columns—what Kempel calls “metaphoric tree trunks”—were all canted slightly.

Builder Tom Preis, who prides himself on staying on a job “from morning ’til night,” calls himself a “hands-on builder,” and he happens to revel in just those sorts of challenges. Preis had worked with Kempel previously on a full-scale house, and he was game to do a tree house. “I’ve been in business over 25 years, and I’d never seen anything like this before,” he says. “As soon as I saw the drawings, I knew I wanted to build it.” He adds, “It didn’t scare me, I just knew it would take time.” With each column canted at a different angle, tools such as CAD helped Preis figure out how far out-of-plumb each one leaned in order to prepare for their installation.

Designed for a Los Angeles artist, the tree house looks like a piece of sculpture. But it’s a completely habitable one. At 172 square feet, it’s the kind of peaceful hideaway many people dream of: a studio that’s a perfect spot to go draw, write, read, or just take a nap. The place has electricity, not to mention a powder room, outdoor shower, and sprinkler system (the tree house is in a fire-prone area). Running water is possible thanks to those canted steel support columns—they’re hollow and do double duty as plumbing pipes.

The structure is inspired by the client’s childhood love of tree houses and draws inspiration from tree houses past. But instead of being supported by a tree, this tree house hews close to one. It hovers over an Aleppo pine that fell when it was young and survived. The tree’s first 12 feet of trunk grew horizontally before it resumed growing vertically up the hillside (to make the point, the tree trunk can be seen through a small window in the tree house floor).

Elements such as a butterfly roof, clerestory windows, mahogany-framed windows, and Clear Heart cedar siding were inspired by a house that Kempel had designed for the couple years earlier—a house that never got built. “The tree house was one part of the dream,” says Kempel. “The other part was getting to realize the unbuilt home through building the tree house.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.