"Whether you are looking for something to occupy your children or a perfect haven to retire to after a long day, Treehouse Life can offer a world away from everyday - in an environmentally friendly way of course. We interview Paul Cameron, founder of Treehouse Life."
Start Your Business magazine - www.sybmagazine.com
How did you come up with the idea for Treehouse Life? What provided you with the impetus to switch directions in your career?
One of those 'bubble' moments you see in a cartoon - the idea popped into my head whilst visiting the Daily Mail, Ideal Home Show in 2002 - it became obvious that no one was selling treehouses. I had built a couple for my two boys that had met with encouraging comments from friends and family, I had enjoyed the passion and adventure of making a treehouse happen and I loved the creativity. It did not seem too far for me from what I was doing, so I decided in that moment to be back at the show the following year with a stand - I was, with just 5 sq/m, a web site and a brochure. In 3 weeks I took over 100 orders, went direct to exhibit at the Chelsea Flower show where I won an award, Hampton Court Flower Show and 4 show gardens at the BBC Gardner's World Show at the NEC - in 4 months from my toe-in-the-water at the Ideal Home Show, I had arrived and found a new direction in my career and life.
You have designed a Solar Powered Treehouse; how important are green credentials to the business?
All our treehouses have the availability of solar-powered lighting - magical, cool-to-the-touch LED lights, usually 30 or more to give the treehouse a sparkle of make-believe and fantasy. We have developed a system of power from a solar panel mounted on the roof that charges a battery hidden into the design. Our usual contingency is for 7 hours continuous light that is plenty for evening suppers and fun sleep-overs with sunlight the next day and everyday to re-charge the magic.
The system works beautifully under the tree-canopy because it charges in light and does not require direct sunlight - so all daytimes are good for magical evenings. We also offer full mains electricity, but usually find that this connection with on-grid is actually something most of our customers are wishing to escape.
Green credentials are essential and we have been very deliberate to resource timbers from managed forests, direct from producer. Materials are delivered direct to customer with on-site build using
trees and garden space as the architectural inspiration. We each have a responsibility for green credentials and for us, locking carbon footprint into each of our back-to-nature adventures is perhaps the most natural lesson and experience kids can be given in life's adventure.
Do clients need to actually have a mature tree in order to enjoy a treehouse?
No certainly not...we specialize in treehouses that do not need a tree. How's that...? Well, firstly we do not wish to use the tree for structure, I do not like the idea of banging nails and screws into a trunk or bough - this will always damage and disease the tree. Treehouse Life support our ideas with round timbers and this way we can flow effortlessly with the natural architecture of each tree. Treehouse and decks can spiral and hug the tree, with trunks and boughs emerging naturally through our designs. A group of trees works best, but just as perfect without a tree - actually, many garden designers install our treehouses first and plant in an around once completed. On one project a huge palm tree was craned into place to blend beautifully with the overall theme.
How do you manage your carbon footprint?
Our carbon footprint is effortlessly locked into every treehouse - our timbers preserved for 50 years with all that carbon sucked from the atmosphere during their growth still there in the wood many years later. With every timber a managed tree re-planting ensures the process is renewable and sustainable. Producer to client delivery cuts many carbon miles from our products to a minimum and all off-cut timber is generously recycled rather than, as is usually required from treated timber, finding its way to land-fill. We take a logical and sensible approach finding that this is always appreciated by our customers who in their very decision to invest in outdoors play and living for the whole family have already understood the importance of enjoying the natural benefits of all that grows around us. We do the simple things too, like lift-shares...and just remember, we work outside...no lighting or heat, we are in shorts from March until September!
You only use responsibly sourced timber, are there any extra costs associated with ethically sourced materials?
We use the right timber for the job. Firstly, it needs to look beautiful - throughout it's life. Secondly, it requires significant structural properties - then we ensure the forests where it grows are managed to benefit the environment and the local workforce, then that it travels sensibly. A cost to us is a benefit to the ethical source so the word 'extra cost' is only relative to the benchmark you choose. I am not sure that we pay anymore for something ethically sourced, but that may be because we do not consider anything that isn't.
What is the most unusual treehouse structure you have ever designed?
Somewhere in-between a treehouse specifically for a pool table in Yorkshire to a table tennis treehouse in Ibiza, a hill top treehouse with a hot-tub and shower to suspended treehouse platforms 14m high in the tree-canopy. We branched into Igloo building a few weeks ago in the snow and needed to gift-wrap a Treehouse present from Santa just before Christmas - what a beautiful present that was!
Has the recession impacted upon the company in any way?
If anything - positively, rather than move or take that second holiday - parents have invested in their children, enhanced their gardens and enjoyed family time living and playing outdoors. We are a small company and sensitive to moods in the markets, but at the same time our cost base is slim and we can be nimble when the numbers are tight.
Did you encounter any scepticism when initially setting up such an innovative new company?
Oh yes, and still do. I have the best job in the world and the scepticism is mostly to do with how does someone manage to have a job and a business creating treehouses worldwide...? I am a believer in eclectic and portfolio careers - to throw in some buzz words, but seriously...who ever said that you could only have one career? There has to be a belief that one can create a career around your heart, one can be a business with passion - we structure strictly around sound business strategies, I studied MBA - but I pay people well and have the same great staff I started with, we have learnt, discovered and experienced together and all that knowledge is invested into the company. I have learnt to be more sceptical of banks and B2B services than they imagine, it is possible to do things your own way and to stick close to the dream.
Do you just design treehouses for children?
It's usually for the family; Mum might find us on the web and imagine coffee, wine or suppers on magical tree-canopy decks, children might inspire the adventure and know their wishes, whilst Dad discovers his inner-child and enjoys an opportunity for wild thinking.
There is an inner-child in each of us just bursting to escape, a treehouse is wished by each of us to explore those adventures of natural play - so yes, I design for children, but really for the big kid in each of us!
Can clients tailor their commission to meet their exact specifications or is there a standard treehouse model?
What is a treehouse...? The word is a generic headline, so discovering what the wish is becomes an art of consultation that is all part of our free site visit approach. I listen and absorb wishes, needs and wants - together we share photos, plans and models. My job then is to translate towards what has become a strong design signature. A good treehouse is a blend of beautiful materials, challenging location and exceptional build quality. We always push the boundaries, we push beyond what any client expects, then deliver a "wow" reaction of "how did you achieve that...?". We do not believe that there is such a thing as 'standard', but all we create does benefit from our experienced design signature. This allows us to think typically in 6 sided shapes, 9 or more deck levels around groups of 3 or 4 trees and any number of branch boughs at random heights - it's thinking and creating in 3D and making this work with beautiful and perfect math - it's a bit like being a musician really!
How do you prepare a design for clients who live overseas? Is it possible to commission a treehouse without visiting the plot?
This is a growing and strong business direction for us now. The business proposition is based firmly on web delivery, that's how customers find us - we do not do any other marketing. In this 'facebook' age of sharing photos, this 'skype' world of face-to-face consultation and the free Google download community of 3D sketch drawing software - a site visit to Treehouse Life is as easy in Seatle as it is in Southampton. Tomorrow, I do a site visit in Lancashire with 9 hours driving and a cost of a full tank of fuel. Last week I did a site visit in Ibiza with a £28 flight in one day and back in time for dinner.
Because we have strength of design signature we can push all our experience into knowing immediately how to make work our extreme designs around any tree, therefore the design process can work from photos and simple measurements - the site visit is the people thing to do with meeting me and trusting that I will be pushing lots of Paul Cameron into every aspect of the project.
What are your plans for the company in 2010 and beyond?
This month we launch our web directly into the US on servers there to deliver excellent US Google natural listings. We have a distributor partner in Germany and later this month deliver a full German language web to their marketplace. We have plans to complete similar operations in Spain [Ibiza and the Balerics] and France before the summer. We open a significant retail site on Ibiza this year and are hoping to feature our new products of treehouses in bamboo. Bamboo treehouses are the result of our partnership with a green design and build company located in Bali and the opportunities here with price and worldwide delivery are significant. We have Treehouse resort projects to conceptualize and develop in Bali, Bulgaria, Panama, Fiji and India for our resort partners. We are also developing a simple 'franchise' opportunity for our business and hope that we can develop a worldwide community of treehouse imagineers - life is always adventurous at Treehouse Life, but we focus on keeping business small and simple, we are just big kids having lots of fun!
Start Your Business magazine - www.sybmagazine.com