Standing on the edge of a forest of white oak, hickory and birch with builder Dan Wright, my memories come flooding back: childhood pal Jack and I scramble up the ladder and butt the trap door open with our heads, transporting sleeping bags, flashlights and a small arsenal of water balloons. Treehouses were a treasure trove of adventure.
They still are. The enchanted hideaways of children have been gaining popularity as an “escape pod” for well-heeled baby boomers and their kids. Nestled in the crook of a hardwood tree, it is a peaceful and contemplative space where the most audible sound is the rustle of leaves through the open door.
A decade ago Wright left his career as a custom carpenter to pursue treehouse construction full time. He read books, scoured the Internet and attended a conference in Oregon. An agile man with cropped dark hair, Wright got his start installing red cedar siding on a tree-borne structure built at Longwood Gardens in the style of a Norwegian stave church.
“I was helping Jake Jacob from TreeHouse Workshop,” recalls Wright, 34, owner of Tree Top Builders of West Chester. “It was a very good experience. But, everyone doubted I could make a living at it. So I had to try.”
Since launching his company in 2003, Wright’s business has grown along with his passion. He says he works on about 20 treehouses a year for folks with enough disposable income to rise above it all. Built in our region and at sites from Houston to northern California, Wright blends the classic notion of a simple wooden aerie in a tree with modern angles, clean lines and other design elements.
Wright’s lofty retreats have been outfitted with electricity, wood burning stoves, hot tubs, zip lines, platforms for teaching yoga classes, even poker rooms. The average project costs from $5,000 to $75,000. The latter is a luxurious tree-borne getaway overlooking a pond in Bedminster, N. J. with a spiral staircase, a sprawling mahogany deck, high end woodworking and expansive windows that mimic fire lookouts.
When Wright was asked to design a treehouse on an idyllic forested estate in Bryn Mawr, Pa., the builder leapt at the chance. He began as he always does with a design meeting on site. Then he explored the property, inspecting its 75-year old trees before settling on a pair of red oaks that met his specifications. Next, Wright patiently drew and redrew the design. Finally, he grabbed his tools and began pounding nails, each hammer blow echoing in the silent woods.
Twenty-five feet off the ground it is fashioned from interlocking smooth cedar boards that gives the little home a fairy tale cottage look. Tempered glass railings add a classy touch. Inside you find some fun features: a handsome bay window with a seat inside, a storage compartment that opens mysteriously, a desk built around a tree and cozy corners for reading and games. Outside a gate swings opens and launches folks down the zip line. The front deck has a great view of the property’s tennis courts and motorbike track. It took a month to complete. The owners prefer to remain anonymous.
“It has lots of windows which continually remind you that you are off the ground, and up among the trees," relates Wright, who is also an arborist. “I love the look of cedar shakes. They have a very sharp, finished feel. One of the best ways to rationalize building a tree house is to make it a custom place to set up your laptop and use it as an office. A desk, built around a tree, is a special spot to do homework.”
Three forces are at work in building a treehouse: the owner, the designer and carpenters, and the tree.
“And the tree,” says Wright with a laugh, “is always in charge.”
Wright and his “sky crew,” Scott McKenzie and Paul Gifford, build sustainable treehouses from materials that don’t inhibit the health of the tree. Some trees are sturdier than others. Wright prefers maple, oak, fir and hemlock.
“It’s all about building structures in ways that do not over-stress trees,” Wright explains. “The attachment points are key-- where the tree house physically connects to each tree. We use custom built arboreal fasteners that are tested to withstand increased pressure and custom lag bolts that are generally larger and stronger than those available in hardware stores.”
Adult trees grow larger by expanding their diameter and growing new branch tips, not by growing up like a flower.
“Every year new layers of wood increase the diameter of trunks and branches,” Wright says. “Treehouses need occasional nip-and-tuck retro fitting as the supporting trees thicken with age.”
The past decade has brought about a surge in upscale tree-borne dwellings thanks to innovative design and new technology. Built to the creature comforts of baby boomers’ lifestyle today, they are multi-story retreats with everything from hand-carved spiral staircases and custom trim work to full amenities like a cedar hot tub, kitchens and bathrooms. These models can take months to complete and run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A new generation of classic designers is creating masterpieces that are also works of art in themselves. Roderick Romero is known for building whimsical retreats for Sting and his wife Trudie in Tuscany that was swiftly followed by treetop dwellings for Donna Karan, Julianne Moore and Val Kilmer.
Last autumn Jim McHugh commissioned Wright to build a cedar-sided treehouse perched dramatically 30 feet above a wooded ravine adjacent to his home near Newtown Square, Pa. For McHugh’s three children, the zip line rules.
Strapped into safety harnesses and helmets, the kids clip onto a ¼-inch thick aircraft cable on the first launching platform, and jump. The pulley attached to the harness zings along a 300 foot cable, gliding through a gorgeous array of red and white oaks, hickory and tulip poplar above the brush before touching down on 20-foot high platform. Then they zip over a series of obstacle bridges to another two platforms 30 feet in the sky.
“They get to enjoy nature and incredible views,” says McHugh. “It's hard for them to find anything more fun and exciting than zipping through these trees 20 to 30 feet off the ground. Last weekend my 80-year old neighbor gave it a try. He felt like a ten-year old kid again.”