The deserted summertime nest of a New Hampshire field mouse, a mound of woodchips and chewed cloth, once plugged the stovepipe of a treehouse abode. It’s the happy coexistence with the natural world that happens with treehouse living. “Abundant natural resources allow us to build with onsite wood, recycled windows and roofing and minimal impact,” explains Josh Trought, executive director of D-Acres Organic Farm and Educational Homestead. “Mine cost $125 in materials, and I’ve lived in it for eight years, the mortgage is about 25 cents a month.”
Akin to this basic model are treehouses of vastly different proportions and function. Organizations such as the nonprofit Forever Young Treehouses and Out “n”About Outfitters build public and private structures that promote environmentalism as a way of life.
Out “n” About operates the “Treesort” treetop hotel in the Siskiyou Mountains outside of Cave Junction, Oregon, essentially a bed and breakfast in the trees. Guests stay in suites as high as 37 feet in the air, complete with swinging bridges, balconies and bathrooms.
Forever Young, based in Burlington, Vermont, builds handicapped-accessible treehouses. “Most treehouses are ultra-private, luxury structures that shut the rest of the world out,” says cofounder Bill Allen. “Ours are intended to be open to everyone. We want to provide access to people who would not normally have the opportunity to spend time in a tree.”
Building a treehouse begins with location, one that strikes a balance between privacy and accessibility. “Effect and access can be improved with dramatic slopes by entering at the uphill side and framing the vista on the backside drop off,” says Trought.
Straight, young trees are ideal for treehouse longevity. Tree growth is from the tip, so the platform will not change elevation as the tree matures. But height should be comfortable—the house will creak like an old ship if it is attached to multiple trees too far off the ground, Trought warns.
Other aspects to consider are size and functionality. Cold weather use may mean adding a wood-burning stove. Windows provide a view, but not much insulation. Larger treehouses may require ladders, ramps and more involved structural support.
Most treehouses are bolted into living trees, which almost always survive the intrusion. However, owners who want to avoid inflicting any harm on trees use tripod-based stands and pin foundations. The general guideline for materials is to maximize the use of local, all-natural and recycled sources. Trought notes that oak is durable, pine is light and strong and hemlock, though heavy, is good for beams. Cedar and black locust are rot resistant.
Eyrich Stauffer, Forever Young architect and builder, says, “We try to use materials of low-embodied energy, in their natural form, but we don’t have the final say. Many clients want long-lasting structures and low maintenance.”
Apart from wood, other materials can be incorporated into treehouses. Scrap metal is often used as roofing, steel makes reliable structural beams and recycled windows add personality.
Longevity depends on material and quality of construction. A small treehouse built from all natural woods can last anywhere from 10 to 15 years, Trought says. Inclusion of metal beams in the platform can increase the lifespan to 25 years.
Commercial treehouses de-mand even more dependability. Built by professional crews using very specific measurements and treated materials, these treehouses last anywhere from 30 to 50 years, Stauffer says. Costs vary immensely. Smaller designs can be as little as $100 plus constructors’ time and the cost of materials. The larger structures average $250,000 to $300,000, but can range anywhere from $100,000 to $750,000.
Room with a View
Named the Skinny Shack, Trought’s treehouse overlooks a 200-acre pasture in Dorchester, New Hampshire. Four other treehouses and a small number of tent platforms are scattered through-out the property. Cob ovens, solar panels, biofuel systems and extensive gardens are some of the sustainable technologies in use on the property. The D-Acres family philosophy centers on returning what is used to the Earth. The shelters are simple and unobtrusive, built by hand and hammer.
Forever Young and Out”n”About say that providing natural shelters is fulfilling work. “I began building treehouses because of the creativity involved, plus the opportunity to work with natural materials and funky designs,” Stauffer says. “But I have stayed on because of the effect it has on people who would otherwise have no opportunity to get in touch with the natural world.”