Treetop Hideaways

Vacationers are flocking to the new, one-room Treetop Hideaways hotel, located in Flintstone, Georgia. Guests are choosing the 250-square-foot hotel for its incredible location – just seven minutes south of downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, and near Rock City. They’re choosing the hotel for its commitment to sustainability. They’re also choosing the hotel because – most notably – it’s a treehouse. How do you keep a treehouse hotel comfortable year-round? For Treetop Hideaways, the answer was Hyper-Heating INVERTER® (H2i®) technology from Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating (Mitsubishi Electric) Zoned Comfort Solutions.

A few years ago, Andrew Alms became interested in treehouse hotels after learning about their popularity in the Pacific Northwest. His business partner, Enoch Elwell, had also experienced them in Atlanta. Chattanooga lacked a treehouse hotel, despite seeming like a great place for one. This presented Alms and Elwell with an opportunity. Alms said, “Chattanooga is green and creative, but there’s been an exodus away from traditional camping because of its lack of basic amenities and comforts. People definitely feel a desire to be in this type of environment – to be outdoors and in an imaginative space – but they still want to be comfortable.”

Alms and Elwell decided to open their own treehouse hotel as founders and co-operators. The first step – meeting with Michael Walton, AIA, LEED AP, executive director, green|spaces, Chattanooga, a local sustainability nonprofit and resource center. Walton said, “They really wanted to sell the story of an experience, so we talked about what their options were in terms of green building, certification and best practices. The project was already moving in the direction of the Living Building Challeng (LBC), which requires projects to have net-positive energy, net-positive water and no materials on the red list – which is about material health.”

Challenge: Providing discreet, reliable cooling and heating in a treehouse hotel

With LBC certification in mind, the project team constructed the treehouse between two trees – a sweetgum and red oak, both 24 inches in diameter. Walton said, “It’s one thing to build a treehouse. It’s another to build a high-performance, comfortable-in-any-season treehouse that people are willing to spend a significant amount of money to stay in. So we insulated and sealed the walls, and used a lot of salvaged building materials to create the authentic treehouse aesthetic.” Alms explained: “We wanted to inspire people.”

The only missing piece: thermal comfort. Alms said, “We put in a window unit for a/c but it just wasn’t cutting it. We tried it for six months, but the unit couldn’t pump out enough air.” The electric space heater, used in the winter, was also not up to par. “We talked with Michael about how to truly cool and heat the space. Since the Living Building Challenge says no combustibles, it was pretty clear that split-ductless was the way to go.”

Switching to zoned systems would not only solve the comfort issue, but contribute to LBC certification. “You want a high-efficiency system to cool and heat because of the net-positive requirements. Up in the air in a tree – there’s nothing that exists that’s more efficient,” said Walton.

Kim Ray, VP, Conditionaire Company, Inc., Chattanooga – a Diamond Contractor – was called in to design and install a system “that would contribute to giving guests the camping experience but with some of the creature comforts you expect from hotels.” He compiled a list of criteria the selected cooling and heating system had to meet:

  • Operates with low noise
  • Ensures comfort
  • Takes up minimal space; easy to hide or camouflage
  • As efficient as possible (to keep utility bills low)
  • As low an environmental impact as possible

Ray agreed that zoned systems were the best way to meet all five criteria. “Split-ductless would let their clientele be comfortable while in the treehouse. And that’s the point, to be in the treehouse. And the inverter technology – it’s a real benefit. You’re only using the capacity you need. Plus these systems are good during weather extremes, especially with hyper-heat, which eliminates the need for any supplemental heating,” and which heats at full capacity down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. That performance was key given the location’s often chilly mountain temperatures, and the convenience was key given Alms’ commitment to creating a comfortable environment for guests year-round.

Ray recommended Zoned Comfort Solutions from Mitsubishi Electric, specifically, because “they’ve been around a long time and are on the cutting edge of technology. They also have strong local support. Their warehousing is good, which makes the product much more available. We work with Partners Supply; they do an excellent job with the Mitsubishi [Electric] product, keeping us informed and taking care
of any issues.”

Solution: Zoned Comfort Solutions from Mitsubishi Electric

Alms was convinced by Ray’s recommendation because “we wanted to leave the ambience of the space nice and quiet, so guests could hear the rain on the roof, or the frogs outside in the pond. Mini-splits wouldn’t get in the way of that. And in terms of size, the units really fit our space. There are cheaper brands than Mitsubishi [Electric], but the quality of Mitsubishi [Electric] is something we wanted. We needed that reliability for our guests.”

Installation took place over two days. “We put the outdoor unit below the treehouse, off to the side, on the ground. We ran the lines up the tree. The line set was flexible enough to work with the movement of the tree,” said Alms.

Result: Satisfied owners, comfortable guests and steps taken toward Living Building Challenge certification

He continued, “The system turned out great – functionally and aesthetically. The controller is designed well, which makes it easy to explain to guests how to use. The whole thing is fully programmable; we leave this up to guests so they can be comfortable. We’ve heard no complaints. You know what they say: No news is good news. And we’ve had some days over 100 degrees! The Mitsubishi [Electric] system has been flawless in keeping up. It cools the place down and gets a nice airflow around the space.” Alms is relieved to finally have a reliable, effective system – especially considering that the hotel averages 90 percent occupancy.

After such a positive experience, Alms and Elwell are looking ahead to next steps. One is to formally earn LBC certification for the treehouse. The other is to go from one treehouse to multiple treehouses – at least eight over the next few years. This will create a hotel with a variety of rooms to stay in – all of them up in the air, and all of them truly comfortable.