Chudleigh, who calls himself an old hippie, says the idea was a gift to him. "Now it's a gift to the rest of the world."
Free Spirit Spheres is a novel bed-and-breakfast run by Chudleigh and his partner, Rosey Cowan, on five acres near Vancouver Island's Qualicum Beach. It may be the only place on sphere Earth where mortals can dwell in wooden orbs suspended from towering trees.
The owners themselves occupy roomier quarters, a two-storey log house. In a grove nearby are the spheres Eryn and Eve, each suspended from three, nearly vertical ropes tethered to 70-year-old trees. Guests climb spiral staircases to suspension bridges, leading to the globes' doorways. There is a pond near the site, and an outhouse with a composting toilet.
In strong winds, the spheres swing gently with the trees. "I wanted them to be stable," Chudleigh says. "I know that three-legged stools are more stable than four-legged chairs. This is like a three-legged stool, upside down." He notes that the spheres weathered the tempestuous winter of 2006 just fine.
Visitors always search for comparisons upon encountering the spheres. They've been called pumpkins, omniscient eyeballs, pendants, deep-sea dive tanks and space pods. Chudleigh, a naturalist, sees them as gigantic nuts. In what he describes as bio-mimicry, the outer shell protects the seed inside: the circular shape allows stress to be distributed all around and absorbed.
The "uniwall" construction melds floor into ceiling. "There's no discontinuity, no breaks, it's all one," he says.
With the forest as a foundation for the spheres, occupants have a vested interest in protecting the anchoring trees. Chudleigh calls this "organic architecture," and his work has been featured in some 30 architecture publications, following pilgrimages by curious architects.
The spheres are undeniably nautical with their rigging, yacht-style joinery, brass trim, compact interiors and 40-inch portholes. Chudleigh is also a boatbuilder who has lived on a 40-foot vessel he constructed. His shift from rolling seas to swaying trees brings the forest to the people. European urbanites have visited and been dazed by the clever interior design - including a table, bed, heat and electricity - and the stunning treetop views. Thanks to the sensory banquet of birdsong, starry nights and rainforest bouquet, "Lots of people have epiphanies when they stay out here," Chudleigh says.
"You're cocooned, encompassed by it all," adds Cowan, a former teacher and translator who works as a hydrotherapist. She notes that the spheres offer a different way to savour nature. There's protection from the elements, and from roaming bears. "When I leave the spheres, I have a smile on my face."
Eve, nine feet in diameter and crafted from yellow cedar, was Chudleigh's prototype, completed in 1998. Eryn, a little larger and made from lightweight Sitka spruce, was completed in 2004 at a cost of about $105,000. Each sphere represents 3,000 hours of work.
It's not easy to create a circular living space. "You can't go to Home Depot and buy a set of window hinges for a sphere," Chudleigh says with a grin. Lacking right-angle reference points, he used polar coordinates based on the sphere's radius. Crafting doors that could open was another puzzle, but the self-described "stubborn soul" didn't jump ship. Some nights he'd fall asleep pondering a problem and resolve the problem in dreams.
Spheres can be installed wherever they can be securely suspended, including buildings or rock faces. They are "green" dwellings because they're portable and leave no traces of their presence. Three people can rig up a sphere in a day, although it may take a week to install the stairway and suspension bridge. Eve is in her ninth location, and Eryn occupies her third. The spheres are transported by means of a Mitsubishi flatbed truck with a winch.
Chudleigh, originally from Calgary, is a power engineer who knows his way around boilers and turbines. He says he supports his "sphere habit" with profitable jobs in such locales as Qatar, Oman, and India, where he spent two months this year. He is also a freelance technical writer.
His spheres are famous, thanks to television features and the internet. Land Rover of Britain visited last year to shoot a commercial with Eryn. Brazilians are also attempting to build some spherical tree houses, says Chudleigh, who sells perhaps one sphere a year. Recently, a client in France paid $40,000 (and $10,000 more for shipping) for a treetop playhouse for his daughters. That model is fibreglass, finished in white vinyl with walnut trim.
Charmed by the notion of these whimsical tree dwellings, visitors come from far and wide. Chudleigh says 40 percent of the guests are Europeans, 20 percent are Americans, and the rest are Canadian. Most are young and interested in environmental issues.
For Carla Ulmer of Banff, Alberta, the funky spheres epitomize Vancouver Island's relaxed, tree-hugging attitude. Both she and her husband, Joe, are tall, and when they spent a night in Eryn last July, they wondered if the experience might literally cramp their style. "But we were amazed at how spacious it was," she says.
They decided to visit after Joe saw a television feature about the spheres. "It's everyone's fantasy to stay in a treehouse," she says. So memorable was the experience that they are planning to return with friends. They hope a wind comes up next time.
What really impressed the Alberta couple was the surround sound delivered by two, ceiling-mounted speakers. "It made our little MP3 player sound so good," Joe says.
Other guests have also been thrilled by the magical acoustics. A Mexican positioned himself in the sphere's central "sweet spot" and began to sing. "He made it ring like a Tibetan [singing] bowl," says Chudleigh. He is always amazed by the way noises are eerily amplified when one is inside the tree house.
Cowan concurs. She sings in a choir and will often practice in a sphere. "It's quite entertaining. I hear all the sounds come back to me." Musicians have requested use of the spheres for recording. Artists or writers on retreat often rent the spaces by the week.
Because they have to turn away so many guests, Chudleigh and Cowan plan to create a resort that is literally "high end." Their Eryndelle development is to consist of about 20 spheres. This summer, Chudleigh was working on Melody, intended to be the resort's spa, complete with massage table and a Murphy bed.
"When you work in them, you get close to them," he says. "For over 14 years, I've been playing with this. But it's still a thrill."
Visit www.freespiritspheres.com for further information. Click here, for a plan to build your own, more typical treehouse.