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How a Kilkenny couple designed and built their ‘treehouse’ in their urban garden

Named the Braille House due to Helena Duggan and Robbie Heffernan having ‘felt their way through the project’, the treehouse gave them a place to escape to - and a side income

During the dark days of the recession, Kilkenny author Helena Duggan’s husband Robbie Heffernan lost his job. Finding himself with time on his hands and some redundancy money in his pocket, he decided to use it as a chance to fulfil his childhood dream of building a proper treehouse.

Some of their friends struggled to picture Heffernan’s vision, but he was undeterred. “That’s what I love about Robbie. He would be a dreamer,” Duggan says. As a dreamer herself, she happily got on board, and Heffernan also enlisted his very talented carpenter brother, Billy Heffernan. “The three of us sat down one day and drew out a rough shape on a napkin,” she recalls.

The couple live in a house in Kilkenny city that belonged to her husband’s grandmother, and they decided to build the treehouse at the bottom of the long garden overlooking a conservation area and the river Nore. There was one problem: the garden was an utter wilderness, so Duggan gamely operated a mini-digger. “I hadn’t got a clue how to drive it. I was in it trying to half-landscape the garden.”

Once a space was cleared, the brothers began constructing the treehouse, using two trees and some wooden supports as the base. Duggan was dispatched to source windows, with a budget of just €50. She managed to find what they needed from a second-hand roadside dealer in Carlow – Heffernan and his brother fitted them, and that evening the trio celebrated inside their creation, which they named the Braille House, because they felt their way through the project.

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Duggan, who is also a graphic designer, pitched in with the sanding, varnishing and decorating too. They decided to fit translucent blocks in one wall of the treehouse and these let a lovely amount of light in. On the advice of a local paint shop owner, they went with a bold choice of black for the interior, which turned out to be gorgeous and made all the finishing touches “pop”.

Everything in the treehouse holds a special meaning for the couple. For example, when they were in New York for a marathon, they brought home a decorative hot air balloon, as this is the symbol of Usborne, Duggan’s publisher. The walls are hung with gorgeous illustrations of nature by Duggan’s friend, the acclaimed artist Denise Nestor.

They also added heaters and a bio-ethanol stove, though the stove is really more of an aesthetic feature to make the space feel cosy.

Overall, the project cost about €6,000. Most of that went on wood, which was expensive as it had to be outdoor grade because it was being used outdoors.

When their friends came to see the grand unveiling, they were so impressed that they encouraged the couple to put the Braille House up for rent on Airbnb. They did so, and the property (which has a mezzanine bedroom) attracted a lot of attention.

One of the major appeals of the treehouse for visiting guests is that it’s very centrally located, yet you can’t see the city. “We’ve a wild garden. Robbie keeps bees and is really environmentally aware,” she says. “It feels like you’re in a forest.”

Guests have left lovely comments about their stays, and often say there’s a real sense of peace. Duggan feels that this is because of the positive spirit in which it was built. “It sounds like I’m painting an idealistic picture, but it’s a lovely spot.”

They ended up making a nice income from the treehouse during the time they had it up on Airbnb. However, renting it out was a lot of work in the beginning. “We toyed with giving it up but then we found someone to help, and it eased the burden.”

Also, when they first began letting it, guests had to come into their house to use the bathroom and have a shower. However, the ever-resourceful Duggan sourced a hotel toilet pod that cost in the region of €1,000. The pre-made pod was delivered and simply placed on a small foundation near the base of the treehouse, and Heffernan then clad the exterior. “People get surprised. It’s like a five-star hotel.”

Before they began renting it out, Duggan had the luxury of using it for writing, and she finished her first children’s book there. Lately they have taken the Braille House off Airbnb so, for the moment least, it has been gifted back to her. “When I’m down there writing, all you can hear is birds and the river. It’s like you’re stepping into another world.” But, she adds with a laugh: “When I get down there to write… I often procrastinate and just read.”

Not only did Heffernan’s aspirational dream end up generating a nice side-income for the couple, and providing a space for Duggan to complete a book, but perhaps most importantly it brought playfulness and joy into their lives at a time that could otherwise have been very stressful. Looking back now, she says she didn’t fully grasp how magical a time it was. “We were carefree,” she recalls. “We were able to have fun with it. It brought a lightness at a time that could have been pretty dark.”

Helena Duggan’s latest children’s book, The Light Thieves: Search for the Black Mirror, is out now