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Build a Real Tree House

build a real tree house

Build a Real Tree House | You need very special hardware and suspension materials to build a real house supported by three, or more, trees. You also need a special engineer to make sure it’s all going to work. Copyright 2020 Tim Carter

QUESTION: Tim, I was spending a lazy weekend afternoon gazing at countless photos of actual treehouses that one could live in. I was intrigued and am seriously thinking of building one. Mind you, I’m not talking about some little box kids might play in and use a clubhouse. I’m talking a real two-bedroom home with everything you’d have in a home that’s built on a typical foundation on the ground. What’s involved in making this happen? Is it foolhardy? Will the house get damaged in a windstorm? Becky S., Rockfall, CT

Have you spent a dreamy afternoon or two as Becky did? I know I have. About ten years ago after first moving to New Hampshire, I thought about building a separate tiny structure up on a giant piece of exposed granite on my land. My oldest daughter had shown me a stunning photo of an enclosed deck surrounded by giant glass windows. The caption of the photo called it a lantern room.

I was mesmerized with this concept and went so far as to seriously think about building a two-room structure surrounded by nothing but glass. After a few days, the magic wore off. It’s a good thing because it would have been a nightmare to get to it in snowy weather much less heat it in the winter!

Can you build a treehouse?

An entire industry has blossomed because of folks like Becky. You absolutely can build a treehouse, a real house surrounding a single tree or suspended in between three, or more, trees. Wind is your biggest enemy when it comes to treehouses. Trees sway back and forth in heavy winds.

tree house

This is the tree house I stayed in for three days. It was in Ellsworth, Maine.

Will a treehouse get damaged by the wind?

A well-engineered treehouse will not be damaged in windstorms because it will float on a suspension system that’s connected to the trees. There are all sorts of systems and it’s going to require quite a bit of research as well as field trips to see which one you feel will work best. If you were to bolt the house support beams directly to the trees, the wind would tear the house apart as it stretches and squeezes the house.

tree house

Look at the special white slide plates that ensure the house is not ripped apart when it's windy.

How do you know if a tree will support a treehouse?

Before you get too involved in the project, I think the first person I’d consult with would be a certified arborist. I’d want to know if the trees I’m thinking of working with are strong, disease-resistant, and well-suited for holding up a house for 50, or more, years. I know for a fact not all trees are equal and some are far weaker than others. I’d want to know how fast the diameter of the tree increases so the ones supporting the house don’t start to get too close to the exterior finishes.

Once I knew the trees would work, I’d then go travel to see no less than five actual treehouses and talk with the owners. Most are proud of their structures and will almost always share their trials and tribulations. You can even stay in one for a weekend like I did in Downeast Maine. I highly recommend looking online for treehouses that you can rent for a night or weekend. Take lots of photos to see what you like and don’t like. Pay attention to how the house was connected to the trees and how all the utilities stretch up from the ground into the house.

tree house

This is the delightful outdoor shower I used while staying at this tree house.

Are construction costs higher for a treehouse vs a normal house?

Be aware that your construction costs are very likely going to be higher than those for a normal house. The builder will face all sorts of challenges working up in and around the trees that will undoubtedly slow him down. Address this topic with the owners of the treehouses you visit. You can diplomatically talk about this speaking in generalities and ranges of prices.

tree house

You need to make sure the trees don't hit the house!

How do I find a contractor to build the treehouse?

I feel one of your biggest challenges will be finding a builder who can do the job. My guess is very few builders have built a treehouse. It’s okay to use a builder who has not done one, but he needs to be extremely detail-oriented and he needs to prove to you that he has completed other projects that had very unique engineering challenges he successfully overcame. You must go visit those projects and talk with the homeowners. Do not simply trust what the builder tells you. There’s too much at risk.

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You can also watch any number of online videos about treehouse construction and the types of suspension systems that are available. Pay attention to all the different products used and try to locate videos showing the methods the builders used to work up in the air. Scaffolding comes to mind, but your wooded situation may not be such a friendly place for pipe scaffolding.

tree house

The inside of a tree house can have all sorts of interesting features. Be sure you install a 5-foot diameter staircase, not a narrow 4-foot one like this.

Lastly, you should give serious consideration to all the exterior materials. Think about future maintenance. Imagine how much effort it might be to paint the house or do other things to keep the exterior in excellent shape.

This project will require an enormous amount of preplanning and due diligence if you don’t want your dream to transform into a nightmare. Take plenty of time to parse all the parts of your vision so you don’t overlook something that will leave you awake at night!

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