original article appeared in the September 22, 2015 edition of the Tri-City Voice
photos by Adam Crowley (www.adamcrowley.com)
For many of us, our childhood is filled with exploration and discovery. And nothing seems more magical than a tree house. It is a place where you can hide from the world and make up your own rules… a secret place all your own, where you feel safe, nestled in a tree’s embrace.
But what was once primarily a child’s clubhouse has evolved over the past 30 years to become a serious housing alternative for adults as well. Modern takes on the tree house can now be found throughout the world in the form of art studios, guest houses, offices, and B&B’s, complete with running water, heating, electricity, and all the comforts of home.
The current tree house movement has grown from the seed of an idea. It was 35 years ago when a man by the name of Michael Garnier slapped together a 20-foot-high treehouse for his kids on his Oregon property. After a while, a concern for their safety, combined with his engineering background and love of trees, had him wondering about how to build a better one. “I learned more about how to build, and I watched how trees reacted to having metal in them or boards on them,” says Garnier.
Years later, in 1997, Garnier hosted the first World Treehouse Conference, along with another pioneer in the treehouse world, Pete Nelson. Also among the dedicated treehouse enthusiasts was Charlie Greenwood, a mechanical engineer from Silicon Valley, who suggested that instead of nailing boards to a tree, why not set a platform atop steel bolts, which would allow for heavier loads and give the tree more room to grow. The group experimented over the next year, finally deciding on a prototype, which has revolutionized the way treehouses are now built. “Now, with the new technology, you can you build something that’ll last 20 to 50 years, and it can be an improvement to your property,” says Garnier.
Indeed, many people have consulted with Garnier and Nelson over the years when building their own custom treehouse, and they are happy to help. Garnier’s first suggestion is to come and stay on his property, the Out ‘n’ About Treesort, which he likens to an “Ewok village”. There you can view over 15 treehouses, some with lights, beds, bathrooms, and kitchenettes, all connected by rope bridges, walkways, ziplines, ladders, and stairs. It is truly a living museum of treehouse technology where you can see how the trees have adapted to their new loads over time.
Nelson also runs a treehouse B&B in Fall City, Washington with his wife Judy, called Treehouse Point. He operates a treehouse design and supply company (Nelson Treehouse and Supply) as well, has authored numerous photo books on the subject, and is the star of Animal Planet’s TV show, Treehouse Masters.
As anyone who has seen the show can tell you, Pete has a specific process when designing and building a treehouse. He will first listen to the client’s needs and vision, and then they will march around the property in search of the perfect tree (or trees). Once a location is chosen, he will sketch a design which, once approved, will become the blueprint for the new treehouse.
Building a treehouse has truly evolved from a lone DIY homeowner going out with a hammer and nails, to a team of professional craftsmen working on a job site. If you’re thinking about such a project, consider hiring a consultant to guide you in the process. You could also possibly need an engineer and an arborist. Nelson’s team consists of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and rigging specialists, as well as an interior designer. The price range for a treehouse varies widely, and can be anywhere from $2,500 to $250,000.
Of course, at the end of the day, it’s still a treehouse. “The tree is the ultimate architect,” says John Henry Lionheart, who owns Fine Treehouse Building in Berkeley. “Treehouse design should be organic, in harmony with the tree. The lines should follow the dictates of the tree without undo cutting and trimming. And support should be furnished by the tree as much as possible.” Garnier advises, “If you do it right, it should get stronger over a period of time instead of weaker.”
Like any structure, treehouses are subject to certain building codes for safety reasons. While a building permit is usually not required (“treehouses are normally classified as ‘accessory structures’ like sheds and are not subject to the permit process,” says Lionheart), you may need to check with your city’s zoning department. “My suggestion is that you build your treehouse to code as much as possible,” says Garnier. Checking in with your neighbors about it is also a good idea.
The love that Nelson, Garnier, and Lionheart feel for nature is evident in their creations. They produce finely crafted spaces in the trees that bring out the kid in all of us. As Pete Nelson writes in his first book, Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb,
“Treehouses lift the spirits. They inspire dreams. They represent freedom: from adults or adulthood, from duties and responsibilities, from an earthbound perspective. If we can’t fly with the birds, at least we can nest with them.”
To try out a treehouse:
Out ‘n’ About Treesort
300 Page Creek Rd
Cave Junction, OR 97523
Tree House Point
6922 Preston-Fall City Road SE
Issaquah, WA 98027
To learn more about treehouses:
Treehouse Masters on Animal Planet
The Treehouse Guys on the diy network
Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb
by Pete Nelson
Be in a Treehouse: Design / Construction / Inspiration
by Pete Nelson
Home Tree Home: Principles of Treehouse Construction and Other Tall Tales
by Pete Nelson