Building Habitats

All Things Treehouses

posted: 09/17/13
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Wouldn't it be great to watch the game in a treehouse?
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By: Alison Kim Perry

Picture a Saturday afternoon lounging in your spacious living room with friends, watching college football on a big screen TV with enough pizza and beer to make everyone happy. Sounds like a typical gathering, right? Well, it is if your living room is inside your home.

But it isn't if that living room with the same big screen TV happens to be more than nine feet up in the air in your tree house. A tree house. Seriously? It is reality for some because tree houses have evolved from simple, small structures erected from lumber and nails built by Dad. Now, many are custom-designed two and three-storied weekend retreats that are fancier than most of our homes on the ground.

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A treehouse swing is a great addition to a treehouse.
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Treehouses have always been a special place for many children. For years, they have had great meaning for countless children who dreamed, played and even slept in these outdoor forts. To a child, it didn't matter the size of the treehouse - or even the tree. Nor was the priority placed on supreme craftsmanship and design. What mattered were the traditions created and the memories made just by climbing up and down the trees.

For young boys, treehouses were a place to gather and proudly display their "No Girls Allowed Sign". For little girls, they were the perfect venue to host their tea parties with an exclusive guest list that included their favorite stuffed animals.

Today's massive treehouses are the types of magical masterpieces of design created by treehouse architect Pete Nelson and his team on the show "Treehouse Masters". They are colossal structures that serve as hideaways for the modern kid at heart with the right amount of money to spend.

For the kid who grew up but never grew out of the desire to have a treehouse, modern treehouses are over-the-top outdoor sanctuaries that serve as home offices, religious retreats or even a couple's "summer" home. Who needs fancy digs when you can have treehouses equipped with full bathrooms, kitchens and giant flat screen TVs? But be prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or more for these modern residences.

Detailed treehouses have long been a status symbol. Even the rich and famous had intricate treehouses. Former Beetle John Lennon had one overlooking the strawberry fields orphanage, while Winston Churchill built a treehouse twenty feet up a lime tree on his property. There's even a treehouse located at Disneyland Paris where guests can explore "Les Cabane des Robinson", a recreation of the fictional Swiss Family Robinson family home with walkways and stairs and rooms decorated with furniture salvaged from their famous shipwreck.

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What kind of treehouse would you want to build?
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The History

People have been building treehouses as early as the Middle Ages. There's no written documentation for the actual first one, but it's known that people lived in treehouses in jungles thousands of years ago. For them, it wasn't about child's play. It was about survival. Living high up in the tree kept dwellers safe from predators like jaguars or tigers on the ground below.

Treehouses were also popular all throughout Europe, and even marble ones were built during the Italian Renaissance. During the 19th and 20th centuries, tree houses served as a status symbol for the rich. Children of the rich had expensive play houses built for them in trees, while the wealthy dined in restaurants constructed off the ground like one found outside of Paris dubbed 'Les Robinsons' where diners pulled their own meals up in a basket pulley.

If You Can Dream It, They Can Build It

There's a great demand for the most elaborate treehouse concept a designer can create, and a connoisseur of tree houses is willing to pay. That's because modern and cozy treehouses are outfitted with features including full plumbing, spiral staircases and spacious decks on both sides. Some are made out of copper while others even have hardwood floors. Since it's better to see for yourself, below are two samples of modern day treehouses:

A tree house built by Bill Allen of Forever Young Treehouses in Scranton, Pennsylvania is 35 feet off of the ground with a waterfall that drops 125 feet.

A couple in Dallas built an air-conditioned treehouse for their grandchildren which features two decks, two sleeping lofts, a zipline, and a suspension footbridge. Although their grandchildren are grown, the treehouse gets plenty of usage from the neighborhood kids.

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It all starts with the tree - the focal point of these great structures. Generally, treehouses can be built on any tree that's mature or almost mature. The tree just needs to be strong and healthy. It's best to avoid young trees, trees that are diseased, rotting or leaning to the side, as well as trees that have large gaping holes.

Great treehouse candidates are oak, beech, maple, chestnut, lime, ash and fruit trees. Even fir, spruce or pine trees will pass the test. Pass on the silver birch and poplar trees because their rooting systems are too shallow to be the main support of the treehouse. Nelson says that Douglas fir and red cedar trees are the best because of their strength and beauty.

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Now that you're ready to recreate the nostalgia from your youth and find the designer to construct your dream tree house, make sure you check in with your homeowners' association before you spend the time and money on the project. It would be a shame to have to take down your masterpiece before anyone can enjoy it. Also, try to avoid a tree that is overlooking your neighbor's yard so they don't feel like you're invading their privacy. If you let them know about your intentions ahead of time, you might find a welcome basket filled with goodies waiting inside your new, higher digs.

Knowing what you want is half the battle. Examples of what makes modern treehouses stand out today include long glass windows, slatted wood privacy shutters and lighting effects. Sphere-shaped and steel treehouses also provide a new twist to an old favorite. Some look like small studios while others resemble magical castles or log cabins.

If you were building your own simple tree house, the materials you might need include pressure treated lumber, cedar boards, decking material, lag screws and washers, nails, deck screws, and a pulley for the rope. Your basic tools might include a hammer, adjustable wrench, cordless drill, compound mitre saw, and a ladder.

But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that these materials won't be enough to create what's floating around in yours and your designer's head. It's okay to leave it to the experts to design and build the tree house of your dreams. You'll have enough to worry about when it's done like whether your wife will let you put up the dilapidated "No Girls Allowed Sign".

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