Treetop Marvel

By Carol Tisch Photography by William S. Speer, Greg Wilson, Geroge Cott October 1, 2011

Immersing guests in nature, the organic-looking structure is clad in shiplap cypress.A man of few words, architect Jerry Sparkman distills the genesis of his nationally acclaimed design into a single sentence: “My client asked if I could build a house in the trees, and I said yes.”

Talk about understatements. The guest residence on Casey Key has won a number of prestigious awards, including the 2010 Gold Best of American Living Award, and was recently featured in Dwell magazine. It is an architectural marvel, a contemporary expression of resort-style luxury that manages to evoke memories of a childhood tree house. But this is no makeshift treetop structure. This is Sparkman’s idealization of a tree: strong, tall and poetic.

The arched curve roof was inspired by the shape of the live oak canopy overlooking Little Sarasota Bay.The AIA architect, a partner in TOTeMS Architecture, Inc. of Sarasota, explains that the home’s most dramatic and challenging architectural device, the arched curve profile of the roof, was inspired by a lush live oak canopy on the Little Sarasota Bay side of the property. “The limbs of the live oaks are shaped by western coastal breezes, and the sweep of the roof follows the eastward arc of the surrounding trees,” he says.

The homeowner wanted to immerse her guests in the peace and tranquility of nature but also to keep them far enough away from the main house that they wouldn’t feel they were intruding. The oak canopy was the ideal spot, but mature live oaks are a precious species in Florida, and the owner wanted to preserve every one. She also envisioned a place that was comfortable for family members and friends with very different personalities.

“The client is in psychology, and we discussed at length the guest experience she hoped to create,” Sparkman says. “After one two- or three-hour session, I went back to the office and told my associates I thought she was playing with my head. She had given me a sheet of paper filled with pairs of words on it—comparisons like ‘We are jeans, not trousers; flip-flops, not heels.’ The client was trying to tell me the house should be contemporary and original, not busy or stiff, and she wanted it to fit right into the trees and the landscape.”

BlueprintBut dreams are one thing; architectural reality is another. To create a “tree house” that would meet FEMA’s flood zone guidelines and Florida building codes, the guest residence had to be elevated 12 feet above ground and built to withstand 130-mile-per-hour winds. The arched roof was crafted of curved glulam (glue laminated) pine beams, which are pound for pound stronger than steel. Ship lap cypress siding was used to clad walls between the beams, which curve up and over the entire space.

The “roots” of this amazing structure are a specialized mini-steel-piling foundation system designed to preserve the health of the oak hammock by avoiding root disturbance. “We didn’t cut any existing trees,” Sparkman says. “By using mini-piles, we were able to slide the house right into the hammock.” TOTeMS positioned the 1,600-square-foot house to provide privacy from the neighboring property to the north, while offering broad views of the oak hammock to the south and west and the Intracoastal Waterway to the east.

Sparkman called on interior architect Shawn Gaither of Studio Hive in Minneapolis, a friend since architecture school and frequent visitor to Sarasota, to bring the organic theme inside. “The idea of hospitality came up quite a bit—the concept of having guests feel as if they were transported to a resort somewhere like Bali,” Gaither recalls. “Everything from the engineered bamboo flooring to the millwork and cabinetry was vetted to meet the criteria she [the client] set.”

Custom Marvin windows follow the arch of the living room’s dramatic curved ceiling.Gaither addressed his client’s request for sophisticated allusions to the water views with the living room’s custom blue area rug and ikat fabrics, and with a kitchen backsplash of marble mosaics in 10 to 15 shades of blue. In the bath, the vessel sink from Stone Forest is actually Moso bamboo. A bed of river stone mosaic tiles is placed beneath a rain showerhead to reinforce the South Seas resort connection. Upstairs, the materials palette in the sleeping loft is as organic and natural as it is in the living space below.

“Everyone involved in the project was interested in the role of craft and old school construction techniques,” Sparkman explains. General contractor Michael K. Walker of Sarasota brought in woodcrafters from a Ukrainian community in North Port who were highly skilled in wood hull construction. The kitchenette is reminiscent of an airplane galley, with all appliances completely hidden from sight.

The breathtaking curved windows that follow the ceiling as it morphs into a wall are credited to Marvin Windows. They open to decks where lucky guests will unwind, reveling in youthful fantasies of escape and adventure in treetop nests, from the Swiss Family Robinson to Peter Pan.


The upstairs sleeping loft with built-in bed and storage is nestled beneath the oak hammock; ocean blue tiles in the main bath pick up water tones from the bay.Home Team

Architect of Record: Jerry Sparkman, AIA, NCARB, TOTeMS Architecture, Inc., 2168 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 952-0084

Contractor: Michael K. Walker & Assoc. Inc., 1793 Mango Ave., Sarasota, (941) 365-3301

Interiors: Shawn Gaither, AIA, Studio Hive, Inc., 901 Third St. N., Minneapolis, Minn., (612) 279-0439

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