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Treehouses Branch Out to Adults

Credits: ©2004 Steven Barrie-Anthony / Tribune Newspapers

It usually starts as a joke. Even you think you're kidding, at first. A treehouse? Grow up. But then fantasy overwhelms your rational instincts, bit by bit. "Doesn't everyone want a treehouse?" Kit Sickels asked back in 2004. Sickels, a San Diego real estate developer, and his wife, Karen, a retired schoolteacher, started talking treehouses while vacationing in Colorado. They followed their whim to an Aspen bookstore, where they bought two books by treehouse maven Peter Nelson. Nelson's Seattle-based company TreeHouse Workshop has built more than 60 treehouses in the last six years, many of them for adults. The world's largest treehouse builder, Scotland-based TreeHouse Co., fields "far more inquiries from the States than from all other countries combined," says president John Harris, whose company built more than 150 treehouses (in 2004), up from three in 1996.


Treehouse Salvage Wood

This treehouse was built for the Sickels family in a live oak grove in California. The 1000-square foot treehouse features a full bath, kitchen, running water and washer/dryer. Its railings and siding were all milled on site from felled standing dead oak. Everything down to the windows was hand built on site including the fireplace by local stone masons. ©2010 Treehouse Workshop

In the years from 1999 to 2004, home offices, guest rooms, even entire houses increasingly migrated skyward, aided by a tightknit cadre of treehouse architects, carpenters, arborists and engineers who build treehouses full time.

Buoyed by the realization that plenty of perfectly sane people choose to spend time in the trees, the Sickelses arranged to meet Nelson in Seattle. In the weeks following, Nelson drew up a plan and a 32-year-old carpenter named Bubba Smith rigged himself a temporary home in a tree on the Sickelses' 70-plus acres in northeastern San Diego County. In June of 2003, construction began on what would become one of the few full-amenity treehouses in the country.

For the central figure in the American treehouse movement, it all began about 40 years ago in front of a tiny Dutch colonial house in Ridgewood, N.J. Eight-year-old Nelson--a lanky, blond, would-be hippie wearing colorful bell-bottoms--grabbed a hammer and began nailing two-by-fours into a nearby maple. First he built a ladder, then a platform, then a roof.

For years, Nelson and his kid sister divided their time between trees and the ground. When he got his "driver's license and discovered the opposite sex," his arboreal gene went into "deep freeze," he says, but it resurfaced when he was 25 and working in Colorado as a carpenter.

"I imagined that there were some adult-size treehouses out there," says Nelson, who began photographing any he could find. To gain access, he told people he was working on a coffee-table book. "Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb," was published in 1994.

While swinging through palms in Hawaii, Nelson heard of a guy in Oregon who had just built his first treehouse--so he flew to Portland and drove to "the middle of nowhere" to Takilma, a former copper-mining town. There he met Michael Garnier, a man with an imposing French fur trapper mustache who had opened a bed-and-breakfast hundreds of miles from any potential guests.

Word spread about a treehouse bed-and-breakfast, and in the early 1990s people such as Nelson started arriving--people who say they're indulging their childhood dreams.

Garnier's Out'n'About Treesort features 18 treehouses up to 37 feet in the air, connected by swaying rope bridges and treetop platforms. Families can opt for the Suite--replete with queen bed, loft, dining table and antique claw-foot bathtub--or Treezebo, a gazebo-style pad nearly 40 feet above ground. To get to Treezebo, follow the Mountain View Treeway: a spiral staircase and 135 feet of suspension bridges.

It's a veritable city in the trees--bed-and-breakfast, plus Treehouse Institute, where visitors enroll in courses from Treeminology to Treehouse Construction 301.

Three forces are at work here: you, the planners and carpenters, and the tree. And the tree, say treehouse builders, is always in charge.

Enter the arborist, who will stage an elaborate dance, kneeling to gauge soil quality, prodding and measuring roots and branches to get a feeling for the site. Enter the engineer, who will "assess the critical geometry of the tree or trees," explains Greenwood. Measure base dimensions. Taper. Wind mass. Sail area. Watch Greenwood plug data into the same computer software used to design the International Space Station.

Nelson patiently draws and redraws, Smith and another carpenter spend the next nine months hammering, and the Sickelses learned to go with the flow. For lumber, the team fells standing dead oaks on the property, and Nelson ships refurbished wood from old demolished buildings in Seattle. A brick fireplace? Skylights? Done! Finally: plumbing, electricity, heat and air conditioning. In the end, the house is 980 square feet, 10 feet off the ground.

Kit Sickels "got writer's cramp from signing checks"--around $350,000 worth--but few treehouses are so elaborate and expensive. Most treehouse owners willingly sacrifice the practical for the fantastical--why bother with air conditioning and plumbing when you can be like Andrew Fisher and build 40 feet in the air and install a zip line that zooms you directly to a homemade archery range?

Fisher, a San Francisco interior decorator, is a Napa-based Tarzan come weekends. He followed the whim and phoned Jonathan Fairoaks and soon the arborist was in Napa, climbing and examining bark. About four months later, in July 2002, Fairoaks and a crew of two put the finishing touches on a 400-square-foot room high in the swaying pines.

Treehouse living reaches back to ancient times, says builder Harris, a self-appointed historian of the treehouse movement. Long ago, "humans used to live in trees," he says. "It was the most hygienic way to live." Eventually people descended, but throughout history they have built in the boughs again and again. In 16th and 17th century Europe, for instance, "any well-to-do person had a treehouse," he says. "They were the places that the landed gentry took their girlfriends."

Treehouses can be kind to tree
Treehouses can bring a hidden benefit to their living hosts by extending the life span of the tree, if the structures are installed properly. They can, for instance, make it more stable by lowering the tree's center of gravity and strengthen weak branch structures.

"Let the tree design the treehouse," says Jonathan Fairoaks, an arborist and treehouse builder who considers trees "very intelligent. Their chemical makeup allows them to adapt to new stresses."

To reduce damage to the tree, hire an arborist before picking up a hammer, major treehouse builders say, and follow this advice:

- Build below the tree's center of gravity.

- If possible, let two or three trees share the load.

- Puncture the tree as infrequently as possible, and drill holes at a distance from one another so that wounds don't coalesce.

- Use bolts and hardware designed for treehouses--this way, the "tree actually grows over the bolts, and connections grow stronger over time," Fairoaks says. Nails will be slowly expelled.

-- Author: Steven Barrie-Anthony

Relevant books:

New Treehouses of the World

The Treehouse Book


Home Tree Home



Save Our Treehouse

Stiles Designs for Treehouses

Treehouses on WebUrbanist

More Treehouses on WebUrbanist

Treehouse Guide

Treehouse Workshop (Seattle, Washington, USA)

Treehouse People (Japan)