Up high, close and personal with Mark Bond, treehouse eco-stay entrepreneur

Eco-retreat creator Mark Bond built (with his business partner) the UK’s first rentable treehouses, the living-room treehouse experience, out in a wild, woodsy Mid Wales valley. We catch up with him up in the canopy to chat about what makes his arboreal accommodation special, about the Dyfi Valley’s long-standing reputation as a centre of eco-activity and about his plans to revolutionise the Wales hospitality scene just a little bit more…

Tell us the story – what attracted you to the Dyfi Valley as somewhere to set up a place to stay? And, firstly talking about the accommodation you already offer, why treehouses?

We have lived in the Dyfi Valley for 20 years, and were inspired by the landscapes and lifestyles here to create unusual holiday experiences. We started with eco-retreats sixteen years ago, a very remote (as in, four miles from the nearest road) tipi and yurt experience, and began building the living-room treehouses in 2011.

Living-room grew out of a pub idea with my business partner Peter. At the time there were no rentable treehouses in the UK. We set ourselves the challenge of designing and building accommodation, completely supported by trees, high in the tree canopy: we thought this would be a magical experience for families, as well as being ultra-romantic for couples. Living-room treehouses are remote, designed and built by local craftspeople from the Dyfi Valley. Nowadays there are lots of treehouses to rent all over the UK, but unlike ours they tend to be built on stilts … so living-room is still fairly unique!

Machynlleth has developed a reputation as something of an eco-friendly centre of Wales, along with the Dyfi Valley. Did this act as an incentive for you to build eco-friendly accommodation rather than just another holiday let?

Peter and I both worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology – an eco-research and visitor attraction – that has drawn businesses and people from across the world to the Dyfi Valley. Living-room has environmental best-practice built into every aspect of the business. The treehouses are off-grid structures, and showcase how alternative technologies allow luxurious living, even in completely remote locations.

Environmentally sensitive technologies enable guests to be deep in the heart of nature, in inspiring and functional structures – and this is what we hope guests experience at living-room.

Now onto the cloudhouses. What is a cloudhouse, and do they offer something different for the Welsh accommodation scene?

Our new cloudhouse project is still embryonic, and its ambition is to offer guests a unique holiday experience. Other than saying the project is based underground, I’m going to keep it under-wraps until we have completed it, as the holiday industry is really derivative! We found, both with our Tipis and Yurt project and the living-room treehouses, that being first into the market was everything. Since Eco-retreats there have been hundreds of Tipi and Yurt sites created; likewise, since the living-room treehouses, almost a hundred treehouses have been built to rent in the UK.

When will we all be able to stay in one?!

Erm, hopefully Summer 2021! Several challenges to negotiate before that, but fingers crossed. They will be amazing!

Two obstacles to building somewhere with significantly environmentally friendly features are cost, and the perception that the construction would be that much more difficult. What has your own experience been, and what is your message to those who might attempt something similar in the future? 

We haven’t found cost to be an issue. In fact, environmentally-friendly features often mean that on-going operational costs more than make up for any increase in build-cost.

A good example would be our water-powered fridges – cooled by the evaporation of natural spring water, and designed and built by Peter, they cost less than a conventional fridge, and have no running costs. This kind of creative solution means that living-room has a very low cost base, and this is reflected both in the price of our holidays and the wages we are able to pay our staff. Another example would be the solar-powered laundrette and passive drying room we have created, so our commitment to carbon-free stays and a low-cost base extends behind the scenes as well. And as I mentioned the treehouses are off-grid: this means that we have no electricity costs, water rates etc.

Advice I would give to anyone thinking of starting an alternative accommodation business is actually to “be alternative”! If you like the look of what someone else has created, it’s too late! Have a look at your land and work with local people to create something which reflects the beauty of that place.

Costs are often higher for places to stay that incorporate a lot of eco-friendly features in the design. It often puts such places beyond the budget of many would-be travellers. Is this justified, do you think? 

I guess if something costs a lot to create, then prices will reflect this – however the technology we employ at the treehouses, has (mostly) been designed and built by us.

Because of our low cost base, we have been able to offer stays at affordable rates. Also, we have been able to pursue a unique approach to pricing. We don’t charge extra for school holiday stays, or for weekends, and just have a single price for a two-night stay throughout the year.

Because of this, and the uniqueness of the treehouses, we have been fully booked on every night since we opened.

A great deal of people must have been attracted to your treehouses over the years. Can you tell us any funny stories about some of your guests? (fear of heights, horror at the composting toilet, perhaps?…)

I guess we mainly attract guests that really love the outdoors and connecting with nature – however occasionally we get folks who have booked just for an Instagram moment, or (for example) have completely mis-judged their new partner’s interests!

Several “Brands” have run competitions to win a treehouse holiday … and one time this ended quite badly. A toilet roll company was launching a new eco-product, and without telling us, put up a living-room treehouse holiday as first prize.

When the winner arrived, she told us that she “didn’t do grass” and refused the 5 minute walk from the car park to her treehouse, as it included crossing a field. So we had to carry her and her luggage the whole way (with the help of her husband)! Happily she had a lovely time and walked back, unaided, at the end of her stay!

READ ON: Mid Wales is well blessed with eccentric eco-friendly accommodation, as staying at this state-of-the-art conker near Newbridge-on-Wye reveals.

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