NEXT Voices: Brian Johnson & Johnson Design and Build: Treehouse Designer

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The following article is a guest blog post from our dear friend Adam Denais, who is an active contributor to the NEXT Architects Facebook Group. He originally wrote this post for the group, which he let me publish as a guest article. Feel free to send this blog post to your friends and coworkers.

Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson Cover Photo

1. Brian, please share with us your story and what you are passionate about.

My experience in the field of architecture stems from a design-build style of construction. When I was fourteen, I started my career as a finishing carpenter, with a focus on trim work and cabinet making.  By the time I was 17, I was leading a small team of carpenters doing commercial and residential renovations. While I thoroughly enjoyed doing construction, I knew I wanted to go further in the field (and in a slightly different direction).

Pursuing non-traditional architecture work led me to work for Nelson Treehouse and Supply in 2017.  The company featured on the television show Treehouse Masters, crafts luxury high-end treehouses across the globe. (My work on the Chapelle treehouse in Utopia, Texas, was featured on the show).

Me framing a house on the North Shore of Long Island

After working for the company for just over a year, I decided to pursue my architecture license further by working for a traditional architecture firm on Long Island.  Yet to satisfy my desire to keep designing and drafting treehouses, I founded Johnson Design and Build, Inc. in April 2019.  In the future, I hope to own my own treehouse eco-resort (and am currently looking for potential properties on the east coast).

Today, I am happily working for Jared Mandel Architects in Williston Park, NY, designing both residential and commercial architecture for clients across Long Island.  The firm encourages an atmosphere of teamwork that plays to the strengths of each individual.  I truly feel fortunate to have landed in such a great environment!

2. How is the process behind designing and building treehouses different from typical practice?

Treehouses have a nostalgia that brings out the inner child in each of us.  Some have memories of summer afternoons spent aloft amongst the branches of a sturdy oak, while others only have fantasies of the treehouse they wished they had growing up.  The design process is often much faster than the conventional architectural process of residential design.  Since treehouses typically range from 400-600 square feet, each gesture made in the design creates a huge impact.  Balancing the form and function of the space often leads to several iterations of schematic design.  Yet once approved, the design development and construction documents often go rather quick!

Treehouses are fastened to trees by using a TAB (Treehouse Attachment Bolt).  These bolts are drilled into the tree and fitted with hardware that allows the tree to move and grow.  The trees grow around the metal tab and treat it as they would a limb.  This method has been found to be the least intrusive for the trees, as other methods such as compression fittings and suspended cables cause more damage long term.

Chapelle Treehouse (my drafting work alongside the actual finished product)

There are definitely some challenges in terms of construction.  Due to their elevation, treehouses tend to get cold!  The earth gives an insulation value that is often taken for granted.  Therefore, it is important to insulate treehouse floors extensively to keep the warmth in.  Likewise, the height from the ground makes framing a bit more challenging.  While a typical house has frames built on-site, often treehouses are pre-fabricated.  Large framed panels can be lifted into place using a series of pulleys and ropes.  This allows for more accurate framing, as well as ease of assembly in the field.

One of the largest challenges treehouses face is the resistance from local building jurisdictions.  Many see fastening the structure to a tree as a liability, and the small footprint often leads to questions of minimum square footage requirements.  Yet, there is hope on the horizon.  In August 2017, the IRC released an appendix outlining definitions for Tiny Houses, as well as giving size requirements for the homes.  Similarly, I feel fortunate to have used my drafting skills to assist in the approval process for building departments in Washington State.  They have set a precedent that other jurisdictions will hopefully follow.  I believe that within the next decade, we will see a rise in the legality of tiny home/treehouse dwelling.

3. What career moves have you made to better your health or career success?

Managing mental health is often difficult for those in the profession.  One firm I worked with for almost two years was a high-stress environment.  Deadlines were made without consulting the workers and (not surprisingly) were not met.  I came to a point where I was skipping lunch and staying late to finish work.  This resulted in me losing nearly 15 pounds over the course of two months.  When I spoke to the boss about hiring an additional employee to help, I was told I was not working hard enough.  I left that job and quickly found another that was a much better fit for me.  I have found that there is no glory in suffering for the profession.  I no longer keep my work email on my phone and do not take calls after 5:00.  When I leave work for the day, I am off the clock.  There must be a separation from work life and home life.

I have struggled with taking the ARE’s and have found NCARB to be lacking severely in terms of preparing candidates for the exams (and ultimately their careers).  When I first started studying, I found myself feeling alone and aimlessly paging through documents, contracts, and textbooks without any real direction.  I realized this wasn’t going to work for me.  I decided to sign up for the ARE Bootcamp with Michael Riscica to help learn the skills I need to become an architect.  Not only did I learn how to study for the exams, but I also joined a community of like-minded individuals focused on advancing their careers.  I have my next exam scheduled, and fingers crossed it goes well!

Me on a frozen pond.

4. Brian, what tips can you give our readers about pursuing their dreams? 

I have two pieces of advice I can share.

  1. Learn what you do best with the least amount of effort, and figure out how you can make money doing it.  For me, building has always come naturally.  When I draft, I visualize how the structure will come together in the field.  In my mind, I see the concrete forms being assembled, hear the sound of the framing nail guns launching ten-penny nails into studs, and smell the pine sawdust of interior trim being cut. I found firms that value a design-build background and allow me the freedom to practice my craft to help their businesses succeed.
  2. Relentlessly pursue your dream. So far, I have taken three ARE’s and failed each of them.  By no means am I ashamed of this, for it is just part of the process.  I am a Black Belt in Kempo Jiu-Jitsu, an Eagle Scout, a two-time marathon runner, and an accomplished piano player.  Throughout each of these journeys, people told me I would not be able to achieve my goal.  Yet each time, the ridicule I received only acted as fuel to propel my dreams forward.  The overly obnoxious “FAIL” at the top of each NCARB test report only acts as a motivator for me to succeed.

During my time in architecture school, multiple professors claimed I was not in the right field (one of which told me to drop out completely).  When I would share my dream of building treehouses with them, I was met with ridicule and accused of pursuing a fantasy.

(Left to right) Joe Marvel, Brian Johnson, Christon Muzante, Eric Morra. These three guys and I went through our five-year B.Arch program together, and kept each other sane throughout the process!

After two years of applying, 24 letters and packages, and a whirlwind trip out to Ohio to meet Pete Nelson [the owner of Nelson Treehouse and Supply], I achieved my goal of landing a job with the company.  Once the school learned of my victory, they wanted to highlight me as a success story.  Funny how that happens!

5. What is NEXT for you? What’s your big dream? 

Once I pass my ARE’s, I intend to pursue growing Johnson Design and Build into a platform to educate future architects, carpenters, and homeowners on the skills I have learned in my field. From discussing what a schematic design is to the merits of using spray foam insulation in a home, I have scripts written out for blog posts/videos to help demystify these topics.  With any luck, I’ll be passing my ARE’s soon, and these will come to fruition!’

Hand drafting at Nelson Treehouse

6. Where can people connect with you?

Give us a follow at:

@Johnsondesignandbuild on Instagram

www.johnsondesignandbuild.com

@builder_brian

About

Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, and the creator of Young Architect, an online platform and community dedicated to helping the next generation of Architects become the most successful generation of Architects. 
Connect: Linkedin / Facebook / Instagram

Hi there!

I’m Michael Riscica, the guy behind Young Architect. I write to help Architecture Students, ARE Candidates and Young Architecture Professionals be more successful at school, work and life!

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