Home Touch by Mary G. Pepitone

InTREEguing Design

Some homeowners have lofty dreams for a leafy escape in a deciduously designed treehouse.

Being up in a treehouse is timeless for Dan Wright, founder of Tree Top Builders Inc., located outside of Philadelphia. "Trees are a connection to nature, and I like to build treehouses that get people up into them," he says. "A treehouse isn't at the top of the list of practical outdoor structures -- like a deck attached to your home -- but having a treehouse encourages creativity and imagination in people of all ages."

An International Society of Arboriculture's Certified Arborist by trade, Wright first experienced a treetop escape as a young boy growing up in New Hampshire. A love of nature and construction helped Wright to organically grow a treehouse empire. He not only builds custom treehouses for clients across the United States, Wright sells do-it-yourself treehouse designs and supplies, and manages his 14-acre Treehouse World, an adventure park in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Demand for custom treehouses seems to be on the rise, especially for those desiring an atypical short-term rental through websites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO. If homeowners desire their own backyard treetop retreat, Wright says there are many steps to take before beginning construction.

Making Plans

While the notion of a treehouse can sound heavenly, a child's getaway is much different than building a habitable structure with electricity. Make sure you share the intention for treehouse usage and get all approvals with neighbors and code officials in writing, if warranted.

"You don't want to find yourself out on a limb when dealing with local municipal or homeowners' association building codes," Wright says. "Before investing time and money into treehouse plans, make sure the structure is allowable in the area you want to build."

Before dreaming of a modern-day Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, it's important to choose the exact site of the treehouse carefully, Wright says. "Use an arborist or forester to help assess a suitable site with healthy trees on which to build your treehouse," he says. "Ideally, you're looking for middle-aged trees, that are at least 1 foot in diameter for the treehouse, and often the design can be dictated by the landscape."

Also, Wright says, involve those who will be using the treehouse to make suggestions for their leafy retreat. Amenities can include a trap door, bridge kits, zip lines, a deck, railing, rope swings, ladders and slides.

Under Construction

The ageless appeal of an airy abode is the inherent adventure of climbing into a treehouse and walking among the leaves, Wright says. Whether you're building as a DIY project or employing a treehouse contractor, it's important to use quality lumber and lag bolts for safety and security.

"In a treehouse, you can feel the trees sway, so construction needs to be sturdy, but not rigid, using special brackets and bolts," Wright says. "If you build a treehouse with construction that doesn't respect the tree, either the structure will fall down or cause injury to the tree."

Avoid nailing into and tying ropes onto a tree. Nails repeatedly puncture without holding and ropes rub a tree, which can cause damage and internal rot. Use specialized lag bolts and attachments instead, which are safer and better for the tree.

Often plans distribute the weight of the treehouse on raised footings or secure, strong stilts. The house can then be attached to a tree using lag bolts or floating attachment brackets when there are multiple trees used in the design. The structure of the treehouse is usually built using pressure-treated wood, then can be sided with cedar, redwood, barn wood or pine planks. Windows can be made-to-size at a local lumberyard.

High House Maintenance

Once the treehouse is built as a refuge, inspect the structure every year, so its construction doesn't become refuse. Ongoing maintenance of the tree is also important for its continued health.

The treehouse should allow for the growth of the tree. Wright says if a design features a tree growing up through the floorboards, keep the wood trimmed about 2 inches away from the trunk. The roofline of the treehouse should be about 2 feet away from a tree's upper branches.

Every spring, before the treehouse starts to get used daily, it's important to do an inspection of the winter's effects on the structure and give it a good cleaning. Replace any cracked boards, check all hardware connections and restring any ropes that are worn on a swing, bridge feature or zip line.

A treehouse can be imaginative in design and spark imagination in those who trek to its treetops. "The design of a treehouse can range from the traditional to creative styles in the form of a pirate ship, a gingerbread home or Old Mother Hubbard's shoe," Wright says. "But, because you are building a structure that incorporates a living tree, no two treehouses are exactly alike."

Tree Tops

-- For services to build a custom treehouse or consult on your design, contact Dan Wright's team at TreeTopBuilders.net.

Wright's source for professional-grade treehouse building materials for do-it-yourself treehouse designers: TreehouseSupplies.com.

To experience a high time nestled among 14 acres of trees, visit Dan Wright's Treehouse World, (1442 Phoenixville Pike) in West Chester, Pennsylvania, (484) 329-7853 or TreehouseWorld.com.