Not Your Father’s Treehouse

Today’s Treehouse Construction

A treehouse has always been a simple childhood pleasure. Kids everywhere have revelled in the freedom brought by a haphazard fort carelessly nailed to the nearest backyard tree. Today, however, this childhood staple has been reinvented – and taken to new heights.

From a cosy bed and breakfast with running water and electricity, to a tranquil yoga studio, or even a multi-storey grownup getaway with a hot tub and wet bar – over the top treehouses have become the hottest new construction trend.

Building these unique dwellings takes careful planning and exceptional skill – using power tools while dangling from a rope three stories above the ground isn’t for the faint of heart. Furthermore, because every tree is different, each build comes with its own unique challenges, so there is rarely a cookie cutter solution at hand. The effort and innovative engineering that treehouses require doesn’t come cheap: a modern, state of the art treehouse can run anywhere from $5000 to $350,000 depending on the location, design, and size.

The growing popularity of luxury treehouses has created a lucrative, but limited, industry of dedicated professionals eager to fashion these outrageous treetop structures. Because fulltime treehouse builders are still few and far between, they travel around the country – or even the world – to create custom built, exorbitantly expensive treehouses for clients willing to pay the price.

Constructing a treehouse is a creative endeavour that requires builders to envision the best way to integrate a manmade structure with a living organism. Many professional treehouse builders liken the process to producing a work of art. The process is often intuitive, and some builders insist that they draw inspiration from the tree itself in order to create a harmonious partnership between nature and structure. Of course, a scientific understanding of trees is also important. Knowing the fundamentals of tree biology is a must, and many professional treehouse builders keep a licensed arborist on staff to ensure that the construction plans match the needs and limitations of the individual tree.

Constructing a treehouse begins with a careful survey to determine which tree or trees will best suit the project. Builders must evaluate overall health of the tree, determine if it can carry the load – which can top out at a whopping 10,000 lbs – and identify the best places for attachment points. If the tree isn’t able to support the weight, then the builders may choose to use support poles so that the ground takes some, or all, of the burden (although treehouse purists usually frown on using backup support).

Once the tree has been chosen and deemed fit for the project, a design must be developed or altered to suit the unique constraints of the tree. The treehouse must fit cleverly among the branches, at a height that matches both the owner’s vision and the tree’s structure. Builders must also scale the tree – often to dizzying heights – in order to remove any “widow makers,” dangerously loose branches that might fall during or after construction, injuring anyone standing below.

The greatest point of difference between a traditional structure and a treehouse is that the foundation for the latter is set in a living, growing organism, rather than on concrete. As a result, the manner in which the house is fastened to the tree is crucial, and the treehouse building industry relies on special fasteners to create safe, long lasting structures. These fasteners, which are tough enough to outlive the tree, are designed to hold the main beams several inches away from the trunk to allow room for the tree to sway in the wind and to grow in girth. When placed correctly, fasteners will spread the load over a large surface area to prevent crushing the living tissue beneath each fastener, which could cripple the tree.

Builders also use as few fasteners as possible to lessen the damage to the tree. A tree is able to compartmentalise a single point of penetration and recover, but if it suffers multiple holes in one area, the immune system may treat the entire area as a single wound, and will close it off from the vascular system in order to prevent decay from spreading to the rest of the tree. The damaged area is then left to rot, leaving the treehouse at risk. In such a case the treehouse may appear secure for several years, only to eventually fall out of the tree without warning, due to the dangerous and unseen wound. For this reason, builders use one large fastener at each attachment point, rather than several small ones. Typically, the smallest bolt considered safe for any size treehouse is 1 inch in diameter.

After the fasteners are installed, builders must haul heavy beams up the tree, typically using only pulleys and brute strength. (Excellent balance and a bit of bravado come in handy during this stage!) After the beams are secured to custom brackets, the rest of the process is fairly similar to a traditional build. Carpenters add a deck atop the main beams, followed by the walls, roof, siding and windows. The main point of difference, of course, is that all materials must be transported up the tree, which can create considerable headaches. Furthermore, builders may have to work while rigged to a harness, swaying several stories above the ground – conditions more suitable to rock climbing than to carpentry.

Because the workspace is so challenging, builders often assemble as much of the structure as they can on the ground. Boards can be cut before being pulled up the tree; walls can be framed and sided before being hoisted into position. In fact, some builders will construct the entire treehouse in a workshop, then transport it in sections to site, where it can be quickly assembled in the tree.

The final step in completing a modern treehouse is to add a number of over-the-top accessories. In fact, today’s professional treehouse builders are willing to create almost anything that can be imagined. Popular additions include water slides, monkey bars, spas, rope bridges, cargo nets, climbing walls, zip lines, trap doors, retractable roofs, fire poles, draw bridges, electric lighting, full kitchens, showers, bath tubs, and toilets.

After a treehouse is completed, the work still continues. Obviously, a dwelling that is dependent on a living tree will have some major maintenance issues not seen in traditional buildings. The health of the tree must be regularly assessed, as well as the integrity of the structure. With proper construction and maintenance, however, a treehouse can easily last 10 to 20 years, or even for as long as the lifetime of the tree.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 17, 2019, 5:13 AM AEDT