Gennaro Brooks-Church, an eco-friendly designer and contractor, is starting construction this month on a two-story leafy retreat in his backyard on 2nd Street in Carroll Gardens — and he’s making it with material he found while dumpster diving.
The plan to build a treehouse out of recycled materials took root two years ago when an intern at Brooks-Church’s firm, Eco Brooklyn, made a rendering of one. The idea sat on the backburner until Brooks-Church’s girlfriend finally gave him a good reason to break ground.
“We have three kids together. She wants a treehouse for them,” said Brooks-Church, 43, whose children are aged 2, 6 and 11.
The builder, who studied comparative religion and creative writing in college, said he scrapped the intern’s rendering and plans on improvising as he goes.
The ground floor will be a chicken coop with walls made out of bags of earth so plants and flowers can grow from them. Brooks-Church described the effect as “like a garden turned on its side.”
The second floor will be made out of glass sheets he salvaged. A discarded fire escape ladder will link the floors. Brooks-Church plans on putting a rope bridge on the second floor that leads to a crow’s nest connected to a deciduous tree known as a Tree of Heaven.
“I’m probably just going to wing it,” Brooks-Church said of building the treehouse. “It’s more a creative process than anything else. I want to experiment with different things.”
In a city where maples, oaks and ashes come at a premium, treehouses seem more like a luxury better suited to the suburbs. But a few borough boughs have been turned into arboreal dwellings.
In 2010, a Greenwich Village woman won a legal battle to keep the treehouse she built in her townhouse’s backyard. In 2011, a Pratt Institute graduate built one in the backyard of her Bedford-Stuyvesant home while she looked for a job. And a Columbia University professor has a treehouse in the yard of his Riverdale home.
While those treehouses were built legally, some have been erected surreptitiously.
Upper West Side resident Bob Redman, 50, became famous in the 1980s for secretly building treehouses in Central Park out of two-by-fours, plywood and rope. While the structures were illegal because they were inside a city park, Redman managed to keep them up for an average of three months.
He finally stopped building the airy digs after city Parks Department enforcement patrol officers caught him one too many times.
He eventually went to work for the Central Park Conservancy as an arborist and later started his own company. Occasionally, he builds treehouses for homeowners outside the city.
“I’ve built them for private residences — as part of being hired by Central Park when I first started, I agreed not to build anymore in the park,” he told DNAinfo New York.
Redman said treehouses are amazing retreats for New Yorkers, saying being aloft on a branch nourishes one’s soul.
“Being in the trees and feeling them sway with the wind, you feel so close to nature — it's a deep experience,” he said.
Brooks-Church said his treehouse will likely take him a month and a half to build on his own — but it’s by no means the first green project in his home.
His family’s brownstone doubles as a showroom for his firm, providing ample ideas for his clients on how to go green.
In his front yard he built a stream where fish, turtles and tadpoles swim. On his roof is another stream surrounded by lush plants. In the backyard is a 5-foot-5-inch-deep natural pool that’s filtered by fish and gravel.
The backyard also has an apiary with 6,000 bees and a section where he grows raspberries, blueberries, grapes and paw paw trees.
Brooks-Church’s building material comes from bricks, joists and other debris he finds in dumpsters near construction sites. One of the stairwells in his brownstone is from a salvaged fire escape.
“It's kind of guerrilla green contracting,” he said of his business. “We try and figure out ways to use what most people think of as garbage. The reason is that construction is so wasteful.”
One of Brooks-Church’s previous home projects — building an underground man cave in his front yard — hit a snag in 2011 after the city Buildings Department backtracked on a permit it issued him for the work. The agency realized that the city actually owned the land and he didn’t have the right to build on it.
But the treehouse shouldn’t have any problems. A Buildings Department spokesman said that they are legal in the city and don’t require construction permits.
Still Brooks-Church’s girlfriend, Loretta Gendville, will have to sign off on the plans.
“She wants a hot tub and a treehouse combined somehow,” he said. “I’m resisting the hot tub because I can’t think of an ecological way to make it work.”