February 21, 2005 Sphere house design is not new and nor is relocatable housing. We covered an ingenious design last year. The aptly-named Free Spirit Sphere offers easily relocatable housing that can sit in a cradle on the ground, or be hoisted 30 metres into the air in an old growth forest. Whatsmore, the sphere can be removed inside 24 hours leaving not a trace that it was ever there. Currently only produced in hand-crafted US$100,000 wooden versions, creator Tom Chudleigh plans to release a fibreglass version by mid-year that will sell for just US$25,000.
The Free Spirit Sphere is a modern day tree house that borrows heavily from sailboat construction and rigging practice and is designed to allow the user to commune with nature whilst doing as little possible to disturb the natural habitat. Built in Canada, by Tom Chudleigh, the idea of the Free Spirit Sphere is new and still in the development stage.
As free a spirit as the company name suggests, Tom said that one day, "the idea just came to me." "It became clearer as I started building the first sphere and it's still growing and evolving. Whenever I have a problem with the spheres I just get quiet for a while and up pops a solution. I feel lucky to be the builder.
"There are only the two I've built out there so far," says Tom. "I'm still developing the whole concept and the production model. I have had one up in the trees for five years. I've also got a fibreglass mould made and expect to start making fibreglass shells sometime late this spring or summer (Q3, 2005)."
Part of Tom's vision for the Free Spirit Sphere is to create a living environment within a forest that enables the dweller to be "at one" with the forest without doing any environmental damage. "I don't know of any other structures that do as little damage to the trees as the sphere," says Tom. "We humans have an impact wherever we go and something very low tech like a sod house can minimize those effects too.
"What the sphere does do is force us into a cooperative living arrangement with the forest. The trees have to be nurtured and protected to keep the sphere safe. I think they create a little bubble of altered space in the midst of a confused world. It feels very refreshing to be there.
"I believe we are far more than just bodies, with brains. I think we are connected to the creative source at the level of Spirit. I live my life from that point of view. This was just one of the ideas that filtered down and I was inspired to build it. The reality of it surpassed my wildest dreams.
Erecting the Sphere
One of the major advantages of the design is that the 500 lb wooden sphere can be easily moved from one location to another within the forest by ropes and tackles. "I have slung them from tree to tree during placement or removal," says Tom. "They can also be helicoptered in to remote sites."
"Climbing the trees is the most difficult yet exhilarating work. Typically it takes a crew of three men a day to get a sphere rigged in the trees. Then it takes several more days to set up the stairway and suspension bridges. The whole set-up comes down in a day and vanishes without a trace.
Safety from falling trees
One of the issues of living in any forest is that of falling trees, a problem the unique suspension concept of the Free Spoirit Sphere overcomes elegantly. There are four attachment points on the top of each sphere and another four anchor points on the bottom. Each of the attachment points is strong enough to carry the weight of the entire sphere and contents.
"The suspension concept is to have the sphere and web function naturally in its environment. If something really big, like a tree, falls through the web then some strands break and let it pass through. The sphere remains suspended by the remaining strands. A major disaster like that is possible but not likely. The spheres are well adapted to life in a large mature forest," says Tom.
Swaying in the breeze
A suspended sphere is tethered by three nearly vertical ropes, to each of three separate trees. This distributes the load over the three trees and results in a stable hang. The sphere resides in the centre of the triangle formed by thetrees, and can be any height from two metres to thirty metres off the ground. As the spheres are light (250 kg) in comparison to the weight of a human, when somebody inside moves, so does the sphere. "As the rope tethers are almost vertical, the treetops can move considerably while hardly moving the sphere at all," explains Tom.
"A sphere can be as high as the trees will permit. The limiting factors are the size and spacing of the trees. Among the big old growth forests on the west coast of Canada with the giant Douglas Firs, a sphere could be as high as 35 meters (120') or more."
Access to the sphere
The sphere is accessed by a spiral stairway and short suspension bridge. The two lower back suspension points of the sphere are tied horizontally to the two back trees, to keep the suspension bridge from folding. The door faces the "door tree" and the suspension bridge connects the two. A helical stairway spirals up or down from the suspension bridge to the ground or next level.
The wooden prototype spheres are made of two laminations of wood strips over laminated wood frames. The outside surface is then finished and covered with a clear resin, resulting in a waterproof and very tough skin, akin to that of a hand-crafted boat. "The skin is strong enough to take the impacts that come with life in a dynamic environment such as the forest," says Tom.
The first prototype was a 2.7metre diameter sphere constructed of yellow cedar while the new prototype is 3.2 metres constructed of sitka spruce. "The grain and texture of the wood shines through," beams Tom. "The insides of our spheres are wired for power, sound and telephone. And mine also has a notebook computer and good speakers. It's a great place to watch DVD's."
The original 2.7m sphere had two 1170mm (46") windows. The 3.2m has four windows and a 560mm (22") skylight. There is a small flat floor area in the centre of each sphere much like a camper (or caravan).
The original 2.7metre sphere, known as "Eve" to the Chudleighs, has closets on either side of the door. These function as partial bulkheads and reinforce the door opening. There is a double bed on one side centred under the 4 ft window. A settee with table is placed in front of the 4' window on the right. The back wall opposite the door provides a galley area with counter and cupboards. A circular shelf, with an opening at the door, rings the ceiling. The shelf reinforces the attachment points and provides easy access storage.
Eryn - the new 3.2 metre sphere prototype
The new prototype is named Eryn, and "is about a month away from being ready to hang in the trees" according to Tom. "With almost twice the volume of Eve, everything is bigger and there's now a loft bed above the galley and room enough to sleep four people," says Tom. "She also has three more windows."
One of the issues in the design of the spheres is the balance between window space and insulation. "The spheres are insulated with 50mm fibreglass with a foil covering, and the current amount of window space on the prototype seems about ideal," says Tom.
"When it's freezing outside, as in zero degrees centrigrade, a 750Welectric heater will keep a sphere warm running around two-thirds of the time.
Future improvements planned by Tom for the spheres include a washroom/shower/sauna sphere complete with its own effluent treatment system. "It will produce only clean water and compos," says Tom, who sees such a unit "serving a whole colony of spheres on a remote setting."
One of Tom's goals is to "produce 10 spheres and hang them all in a large area of old growth forest as a spiritual retreat for myself and whoever else is interested."
Pricing and availability Tom expects the first spheres to be ready for sale around mid-year.
"Initially, they will be the fibreglass 3.2 metre version with five windows and I expect to sell an unfinished shell for about US$5000 and the finished fibreglass units for about US$25000," he said.
"A wooden 3.2 metre version will cost about US$100,000 depending on the finishing. The smaller wooden version would be around US$70,000. I can't tell for sure until I get a few made, so the pricing may vary once we get the production process happening. So far I'm casting a lot of door and window hardware in bronze so its very time-consuming but beautiful.
"Eventually I will publish plans on how to build one but that could take a few years."
One of the services Tom will offer once production starts will be the evaluation of locations for the spheres and the erection of the spheres. "Of all the sphere related enterprises, hanging them is the best part," he says. "I will happily travel to consult and erect spheres. I love to travel and climb trees so the prospect is very enticing to me."
Tom's idea that came to him five years ago looks like bearing fruit. Interest is starting to spring up in Tom's design from all around the world. "Right now, I'm talking to a man in Sweden who wants to manufacture them under license," says Tom.
" I can really see this beginning to take off."