Treehouse designer lives out on a limb

June 9, 2009

By Jim Feehan

A 30-foot wood plank suspension bridge leads guests to a treehouse built around a Sitka spruce. By Jim Feehan

A 30-foot wood plank suspension bridge leads guests to a treehouse built around a Sitka spruce. By Jim Feehan

As a youth growing up in New Jersey, Peter Nelson was fascinated with working with wood. He helped his father built a handful of treehouses and later designed his first tree house while attending high school.

It was never built, but the treehouse seed was planted.

Years later, an old high school friend sent Nelson an illustrated book about how to build treehouses. It inspired Nelson to write his own treehouse-building book, published in 1994. 

Nelson, a builder and general contractor, has gone on to write three more books about building high-end, custom treehouses. For the past 12 years, he’s held workshops about building treehouses. Two years ago, he opened the Northwest Treehouse School in Preston, where he teaches treehouse design and construction. 

His 4-acre compound along the bank of the Raging River includes two treehouses. One is built around a 120-foot tall cedar tree with a wooden-spiral staircase. The other is built 20-feet up a Sitka spruce and includes a 30-foot wood plank suspension bridge to reach the treehouse.“Treehouses provide places to get back to nature and to reconnect with the woods,” he said. “This is back to basics with a little bit of luxury.”

Nelson holds workshops and in September, he’ll hold a symposium about the finer points of designing and building treehouses. The workshops, both held in May, cost $550 and sold out months ago. The symposium is $750 and typically draws people from as far away as Europe and Japan, Nelson said.

The sense of magic and adventure inherent in a child’s treehouse experience comes alive on a grander scale in adult treehouses. The treehouses provide a refuge from the day-to-day grind, and in some cases, serve as a luxurious full-time home.  

The sky is the limit when it comes to upscale treehouses. Treehouses come complete with multiple levels, beds, porches or balconies. Many of these treehouses have many of the advantages of a ground home. Professionally built versions can cost from $40,000 to $150,000 or more. 

The idea of building one can be a daunting project for the uninitiated. It doesn’t take an engineering degree, but a little experience working with tools and lumber makes the process easier, Nelson said 

“For experienced carpenters and builders, it typically takes 300 hours to build a high-end treehouse,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it can take three to four times longer, or roughly the equivalent of three years of weekends.”

Treehouses generally are at least 6 feet off the ground, though more sophisticated ones can rest 35 feet off the ground or more on the largest of trees.

The first part of a treehouse that should be designed and constructed is the platform, from which everything else is built, Nelson said. The platform is extremely important because it should be sturdy enough to hold people and whatever is built on top of it. The foundations are bolted to trees and reinforced with braces, and posts buried in the ground can also support them.

Treehouses also contribute to the greening of the Northwest, Nelson said.

“We’re not killing trees to house people,” he said. “We’re preserving what we have left.”

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