Branching Out From Their Own Barn To Designing Tree Houses And More

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David and Jeanie Stiles’ love for woodworking projects like building tree houses started long before the crafty couple’s 21 books or their custom design company.

The Stileses moved to Springs more than 40 years ago, after Mr. Stiles read about the area’s attraction for artists like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. “I went out there, really hoping to find a barn to buy,” Mr. Stiles said by phone earlier this spring.

At first he had little success, but then an “outbuilding” listed for sale in East Hampton caught his eye in the early ’60s.

“I had no idea what an outbuilding was,” he laughed. “But I went to go check it out, and it was beautiful; simple, not too big; easy enough to renovate.”

The structure was a 150-year-old horse barn. Mr. Stiles bought it from an East Hampton fisherman and farmer for $1,500.

“I told him I didn’t have $1,500 on me but if he could wait, I’d go back to Manhattan and get a check,” Mr. Stiles said. “And I asked him, ‘What if someone comes along and offers you $3,000?’

“He looked at me and he was like, ‘I gave you my word.’ I felt like I was an inch tall.”

The two sealed the deal over a handshake, writing the title for the structure by hand on a small scrap of paper.

The Stileses moved the barn to another piece of property off Albertine’s Lane by Three Mile Harbor, where it now sits, fully renovated and serving as their part-time home.

Complete with French doors, extra-large windows and a stone fireplace, the stable’s transformation has been one of the couple’s biggest projects, and it speaks to their love of outdoor structures.

Ms. Stiles said their goal had been to keep the barn looking as true to its original state as possible while still allowing natural light to flow in.

“One night we had friends over and we were trying to make our decision as to where to place this giant window,” she said. “We finally picked a spot, cut a giant hole in the wall, and put a tarp over it.”

“In the summer when it’s warm enough, we have the front and the back doors completely open and you feel like you’re living outside,” she said. “It has a protective way of being part of nature and being outside.”

The Stileses’ desire to live as close to nature as possible without literally setting up a tent has been a driving force behind their how-to books and Stiles Designs, which provides custom-designed and -constructed tree houses, playhouses, sheds and more, offering clients an experience much like building a new home, from consultations and cost estimates to architectural renderings. Mr. Stiles, a former architectural renderer, and Ms. Stiles, whose background is in literature and photography, have built something of an empire around their niche, including winning an ALA Notable Children’s Book Award for “The Tree House Book” and appearing in The New York Times and on the “Today Show.”

In backyard structures, natural light is important to creating an “airy” feel, Ms. Stiles said. “When you’re in a tree house or a shed, or whatever it is, you don’t want to feel like you’re in a house.”

One recent project, a tea house in Amagansett, achieved the desired effect.

“This woman had a pretty tiny garden,” Ms. Stiles said, “so designing that was a challenge because the space was so small. But the structure is beautiful. She uses it for meditation or having friends over … but being in there, you’d never know where you were. You could be anywhere in the world.”

A “hobbit house” in East Hampton was another of their favorite “works of art,” Mr. Stiles aid. Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, the tree house is made of wood, with a rope-railed deck and tucked away, almost camouflaged, among giant tree branches.

“The ideal tree house is one that looks like it grew there,” Mr. Stiles said.

Often his method for tackling a project is to build architectural models instead of sketches to ensure a cohesiveness between the house and the outbuilding—whether that means a gambrel roof, a modernistic design or something entirely different.

“We hope it’s inspirational to people,” Ms. Stiles said.

She and her husband are slated to release their 22nd book, “Backyard Building,” at the end of May.

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