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Treehouses: not just for kids anymore

June 11, 2005
Marie Narlock

Treehouses: not just for kids anymore

By Marie Narlock

If your family is graced with children and your backyard is graced with a majestic Oak or a small grove of towering Redwoods, then perhaps there is a treehouse in your future. In fact, even if children aren’t in your equation, then an adult treehouse might be a unique, tranquil addition to your yard.

Let’s start with what defines a treehouse.

When I was little, a wedged-in slice of discarded plywood provided a 12-foot high lookout roost from my grandmother’s maple tree. When I sat on that small platform it was just me and the blue jays in our own private nest. From my throne in the sky I was the self-proclaimed Queen of the Backyard, literally and figuratively above it all. Despite its obvious lack of OSHA-approved building methods, it provided hours of pleasure and (amazingly) no injuries ever occurred.

Would I let my own children play on that precarious perch? It’s hard to say. Fast forward 30 years and the treehouse in our own backyard today has a railing and is somewhat screened in to avoid possible falls.

One of our family’s projects for this summer is to enlarge this treehouse. “Easy,” I thought. “We’ll just make it a little taller and wider and call it a day.” Somewhere along the line I obtained a copy of The Treehouse Book by Peter and Judy Nelson and David Larkin.

That book changed everything.

Suddenly my definition of a tree house expanded exponentially. There are treehouses with plumbing, electrical, claw foot bathtubs, leaded windows, and fireplaces, some with full kitchens, some with architectural features to die for. There are cozy treehouse bedrooms, practical treehouse home offices, and inviting treehouse guest houses. Some have simple, old-fashioned approaches, and some have spiral staircases and rope bridges. There are some low to the ground and some suspended 80 feet in the air, specially designed to rock in the wind.

Apparently, the only thing standing between my grandmother’s perch and a small home high in the trees is imagination. Oh, and time, money, and know-how. Those, too.

Suffice to say that we will be making our treehouse “a little taller and wider.” However, I’m sure that a few of the details of the luscious examples in the book may find their way into our expanded creation.

For those considering a building project up in a canopy, I highly recommend this book as well as the website www.thetreehouseguide.com.

As for the basics, keep in mind the following:

1. Choose the right tree and have an arborist check it out before embarking on your project. As a general rule, trees with hard wood (oak, maple) are good choices provided the tree is free of pests and diseases. Buckeyes, aspens, poplars, and alders are less desirable choices. Trees with U-shaped branch junctions tend to work better than those with V-shaped junctions.

2. Do no harm. Don’t cut the bark and the cambium layer any more than is absolutely necessary. Cutting too deeply may risk killing the tree or a major branch.

3. If you aren’t a licensed contractor, consider joining forces with one. True, there are all sorts of do-it-yourself guides out there. There are even treehouse plans that can be purchased with the novice in mind. Let your own experience level be your guide. It may sound outrageously expensive to hire a contractor, but the payoff may be great. Who knows? With Marin’s frothy real estate prices, your quaint little project may ultimately add up to valuable square footage!

4. Find out about any zoning laws such as setback requirements if you think there might be a problem. You may think that a cute little cottage in the sky for your kids looks friendly; your neighbors may think otherwise.

5. Location, location, location. If you have a choice, be sure to select the tree that has the best view and that is a bit off the beaten path. The pleasure you will derive gazing up at your children in their sweet little fort will all be lost if you’re constantly having to worry about their accidentally dropping items on your head. You don’t want to have to warn visitors of possible air strikes either. Don’t make your treehouse understory a hard hat zone!

If this all seems too overwhelming, take heart: there are public vacation tree house resorts available all over the world just waiting for you to visit. In fact, there is one not too far from us in southern Oregon called Out ‘n’ About Treesort. (This is only one of many plays on the word “tree” utilized at this resort, including the ability to buy “treeshirts” and “litreely go out on a limb.”) Check out their website at www.treehouses.com or call for “availabilitree.” It’s the closest possible thing to a Swiss Family Robinson vacation. And one thing is guaranteed: you’re sure to have a great view.

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