Peter Cohen, head of ZenByCat, a non-profit aimed at eradicating FIP (feline infectious peritonitis) had plans to expand his home several years before the pandemic struck in 2020. But, once COVID arrived, it became the ideal time to bring his vision to fruition.
The idea was to build an ADU (additional dwelling unit) at the front of the house with a Cellar space that would become the new “cat cave” addition to the House of Nekko.
House of Nekko (nekko being the Japanese word for cats) is the domicile in Goleta, California, that Peter and his housemate Hiro share with their 20+ cats. I say 20+ because they had one cat pass away right before we did our installation but adopted 4 or 5 newbies soon after we completed our work.
If you’ve never heard of the House of Nekko, you’ve likely seen it on TV shows or online. And if you have never seen it , you will be amazed once you Google it! It is one of the most well-catified and simultaneously artful and poetic homes on planet earth! Every nook and cranny of the house has a place for cats to run, jump, climb, hide and play.
As a general contractor, Peter is engaged in a never-ending project to enrich and engage his felines via the work in his home. And the cat-cave project was yet another link in this chain.
In the summer of 2021, Peter’s crew was underway with excavation and foundation walls, and he asked us to design and build a giant custom cat tree for the cat-cave. Peter had a vision for all the corners, walls, ceilings, and floor areas of the new extension, and we were tasked with making a cat tree that would help connect: it would connect the main floor of the home with the cellar space via the stairwell; it would connect the indoors with the outdoors via the large window in the stairwell; it would connect past with present, seeming as if it was a tree that had been in this spot forever, and that the extension was built around it.
Peter sent us a plan and elevations to work with, noting the only limitation would be to not build the tree much taller than 12 feet, since that would be the highest height he would want any of their cats to be.
The challenges were there, though. Our tree needed to fit within a 3-foot wide double-story space abutting the staircase. And it also needed to provide horizontal and diagonal pathways for the cats to get to the windowsill as well as to the “spaceship” that Peter planned to build in the center of the cat-cave.
And, oh yeah, we needed to design and build this tree in our shop in Florida, disassemble it, ship it across country, and meet it in California to re-assemble it with nothing but Zoom calls and site photos to work from.
Once we had come up with the basic design on paper, I reviewed it with Peter on a video conference call. Peter wanted the tree to be literal but gave us complete latitude in how we would interpret that. Drawing upon his affinity with “zen,” his love for Japanese culture and his passion for eastern ways, I thought of the famous Bodhi tree, a fig tree under which the Buddha sat and found enlightenment. This concept appealed to me as a basis for the design.
As I researched Buddhism, I came across the idea of the six “paramitas” or ways to achieve perfection and enlightenment. These are: generosity, discipline, patience, effort, contemplation, and transcendental knowledge.
From this we derived that we would build a tall, strong trunk for the cat tree and have six main branches, each representing one of these six perfections.
I thought of the definition of a bodhisattva: a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. And what is Peter in his devotion to FIP in cats but a bodhiCATtva?
Although not a Buddhist, Peter accepted my concept, so long as it conveyed the natural beauty of a real tree.
We began our construction of the tree in October, 2021, starting with an organically shaped wood base for the trunk. We embedded a steel collar and a ten-foot tall steel pipe into the base. This pipe would become the inner structure from which all the branches would emanate.
In our small workshop, we traced on the floor the various steps and marked the heights of each tread of the staircase and then calculated our six branch locations based upon this. One low branch would arch along the bulkhead wall; the branch above that would arch up towards the top of the stairs; the next would twist and bend into the cellar space and connect to the center “spaceship;” next would be a branch to the windowsill; next a branch above the stairs themselves; and finally a branch with freeform at the top.
At the bottom trunk, with bent steel piping, we devised an oversized vine of large pothos leaves on which the cats could jump to ascend and descend the tree. We shaped it to turn in the opposite direction of the human staircase, a kind of contrast between human path and feline path.
As a focal point from the cat-cave, we built a beehive with the intention for it as a cat nesting place. Up high in the tree would be a bird’s nest and a bird house situated on different branches to serve as additional cat-nap spots and visual points of interest for people walking down the stairs.
The tree construction required a multitude of couplings and steel pipe that we bent in various directions, all the time minding the projected heights and adjacent context of the room that we would be installing within.
We spent several months developing how we would outfit the branches. We wanted the tree to look abundant and full with a myriad of leaf-patches for the cats to jump to and lounge upon. There had been a wildly popular cat tree on the Internet that a man built for his cat, but it was all branches with no leaves. While it was a beautiful creation, it looked “spooky,” and we wanted this cat tree to feel alive and bountiful.
Settling on organic leaf-patch shapes that we hand-cut, we then devised a repeat pattern of engraved leaves that we cut on our X-Carve CNC machine. We would use the leaves as additive ornaments to help define the leaf-patches as clusters of small branches and fig leaves.
The tree trunk was a hand-formed wire mesh sculpture we made and clad with 10-12 layers of paper Mache and fiberglass resin.
Construction of the trunk, branches and leaf-patches took about 2-3 months, and then we were ready for final paint and finish sealant.
Once completed in our shop, we disassembled the cat tree, wrapped the parts carefully in bubble wrap, created a 4′ by 6′ by 6′ tall crate, packed it up and sent it out to California. Each piece and part was meticulously labeled and nestled in the crate like a game of Jenga, and we said a prayer that it would all arrive safe and sound.
We flew out in mid-May, 2022 with a few suitcases of tools and hardware, and it was straight to work unpacking and re-assembling. Thankfully, everything arrived as we packed it!
Our biggest challenge was wiring. Peter had LED lighting designed in to the entire cat-cave, and he wanted the giant cat tree to be no different. Our pieces were all pre-wired, but getting everything to fit correctly in the field was a challenge that words cannot describe.
All told, it took us 6-1/2 days to install. And, on the seventh day, Peter had brought a kitty tent into the cat-cave with his newbie, a Russian blue they named Mr. Cookie (a play on Cookie Monster, one of the house cats who had recently passed away). We couldn’t wait to see how Mr. Cookie and his housemates would like their new cat tree.
Pictured above: the afternoon light’s effect on the beehive interior
Of course there is no lack of great things in the cat-cave for the cats to partake in! When we arrived, we were floored by all the amazing cat features Peter’s crew of craftsmen had built: an Escher-like zig-zag staircase in one corner, a sprial ramp in the other corner, beautifully finished shelving units and cabinetry, a Japanese soaking tub with full-height waterfall for the cats to drink from, two spectacular cat-bridges suspended from the ceiling, and a double donut shaped “spaceship” at the center of the cave’s ceiling. It was truly a sight to behold!
And as if by Divine guidance, our tree branches and the points we moored them to turned out to be spot-on. The branch to the spaceship was right in line without obscuring any of the room lights. The branch to the window wall fit purrfectly with the large paw-shaped cat-shelf Peter’s carpenters created. The branch to the stair bulkhead met the cloud and sun cat-shelves Peter designed in an ideal way. And the branch above the stairs provided a feeling of tree canopy without blocking your headroom. We couldn’t be more pleased!
On our last night there, Peter and Hiro allowed the cats in the main house in to explore their new cat-cave and all its creations. It was such a joy to see them curiously investigate every nook and cranny of the space. And our spirits soared seeing the kitties test out the giant cat tree and use its limbs to climb, jump, run and nest upon!