Spotlight: Student makes his own — and others’ — childhood dream a reality

Growing up, Griffin Collier never had his own tree house, but by the time the Yale senior graduates in May, he hopes to appreciate the view from one he designed and helped build — and which others may enjoy for years to come.

Collier, who is majoring in architecture, designed a tree house as an independent study project in sculpture, and says its creation combines his interest in both fields. His venture, however, was also inspired by his wish that a whole community could delight in what is for many a childhood dream.

“Just going through this process of making a childhood dream of mine come true, I’ve learned just how common a dream it is for so many people,” says Collier.

Collier recently spoke with YaleNews about how his tree house project has taken shape over the past two years and his hope that it will serve as a special sanctuary for visitors to the Yale-Myers Forest, where he and a team of volunteers will erect the structure toward the end of the semester. Here is what we learned.

Blending passions: The idea for his Yale project began after a late-night conversation two years ago between Collier and his friends about their love of tree houses. He began thinking about the possibility of having one in the courtyard of his residential college, Timothy Dwight, and wondered if a gingko tree there might make the perfect setting.

His dean, John Loge — while not promising it could be done — encouraged Collier to explore its feasibility.

“I always wanted a tree house but never had the right kind of tree for one,” says Collier, who grew up on Long Island. “I liked the idea of designing one for the architectural question of it, but also because it would be a fun structure, and I thought it would be great to have a communal one at Yale.”

Collier met with Turner Brooks, an adjunct professor at the School of Architecture, to discuss the architectural considerations of a tree house and whether he could design one as an independent study project. When he learned that independent study in his own discipline requires an academic paper rather than just a design project, he chose instead to do it via the School of Art’s sculpture department.

“The tree house sits between my interests in both architecture and sculpture,” explains Collier, who has taken several sculpture classes at Yale and works as a shop monitor in the sculpture department. “You can think of it in a sculptural sense, but it’s also inhabitable, so it’s an architectural project. I’ve always loved building things.”

At Yale, Collier has designed and built sets for a number of undergraduate theatrical productions, an interest that began when he was in middle school.

Gingko, gone: Collier spent about a year imagining a design for a tree house in the gingko tree, but eventually learned that the tree was not healthy enough to support one. In fact, much of the tree was lost during Hurricane Sandy. To his chagrin, he eventually also discovered that safety codes and other concerns essentially ruled out building a tree house anywhere on the main campus.

Brooks encouraged Collier to look into whether there might be a place for a tree house somewhere within the nearly 7,500 acres of the Yale Myers Forest — owned by the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) — in northeastern Connecticut. The Yale senior had already made contact with F&ES doctoral student Khris Covey to talk about how to build a tree house in an environmentally non-invasive way, and he made his first trip to the forest with Covey.

“A lot of people don’t know that Yale has these forest lands, and it occurred to me that having a tree house might be one way to draw attention to them, and to connect a greater portion of the community with Yale Myers.”

A kickstart: His visit was soon followed by meetings with Yale Forest manager Alex Barrett and F&ES professor Mark Ashton, director of school forests, to talk about what kind of structure would work well — and be safe — in that environment.

Collier also began working with School of Art sculpture teacher Brent Howard about some of his ideas for its design. Since September, Howard has served as his chief adviser for the project. Ashton, Covey, Barrett, and retired Yale School of Architecture professor Jim Axley, a senior research scientist at F&ES and a structural engineer, have also been important advisers and supporters. Kate Krier, head of undergraduate productions, Peter Pielli of the Department of Health and Safety, and Joseph Zinter at the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design have also lended support and advice.

The chosen location for the tree house is not far from the Yale Myers Forest basecamp, off the Branch Brook Trail.

“The tree house will sit in a 200-year-old sugar maple at the top of a slope that runs down to the Branch Brook,” says Collier. “From the tree, you get a mid-canopy panorama of the forest; as an old-growth tree in a new-growth forest, the tree commands its own clearing. It’s a beautiful spot.”

To raise the money for the project, Collier began a campaign on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, and donations came from friends and strangers alike. In fact, he exceeded his $5,000 goal, thanks, in part, to a donation from Claire Woo, a 2001 graduate of the Yale School of Management, who lives in China. In honor of the biggest contributor to the project, the tree house will be named the Lau Tree house (the last name of Woo’s husband and twin daughters).

Many iterations: Over the past year, Collier has created many designs for the tree house, each new one aimed at better meeting safety considerations, design incentives, or other stipulations. His final design calls for an open-air structure, built in a series of square frames, and which features two platforms that aim to create a space for observing the natural flora and fauna of the forest.

“It’s not a normal tree house in the sense of being a house in a tree,” explains Collier. “It’s a more loosely held space that you can inhabit in a tree. That openness was important to the design but also to the idea that visitors don’t feel separated from nature but engage with it.”

Collier and a volunteer team of Yale affiliates first installed a model of the tree house in wood in the Yale-Myers sugar maple to test its size and dimensions. He and his team will fabricate the final design in aluminum through a collaboration with several on-campus shops. They will erect the pre-fabricated structure in the tree toward the end of May. When it is complete, the team will host an opening ceremony for all of the project’s participants and other guests.

Acquiescing, but never giving up: Collier acknowledges that the many starts and stops along the way to fulfilling his dream of a tree house were sometimes daunting.

“There were a lot of times I thought about giving up, even in the minutes right before I hit the button to launch the fundraising campaign on Kickstarter,” he says. “I had huge doubts about it.”

What he has learned from the experience, however, has made every trial along the way worth it, Collier believes.

“I’ve learned a lot about negotiating the needs of different parties in making a design,” he says. “One of my interests with this project is in being able to design with a constant relation to reality — such as thinking about means and budget — and I’ve certainly had to do that. Beyond that, I learned about sticking to a project — how much is possible if you keep pushing for something.

“Finally, I’ve discovered how some of the most unexpected people can be totally enthralled by the thought of a tree house,” he continues. “That’s really just how I envisioned this project: I’m not really doing this for myself, but rather leaving something behind for others at Yale.”

Learn more about the project on The Tree House at Yale website.