Pete Nelson's Tree Houses Let Homeowners Live the High Life

© Photo Courtesy of Pete Nelson

For many of us, treehouses have captivated our imaginations since childhood, providing natural places of refuge and a special bird's eye view of our world. But what is it about them that really makes them so beloved? MYOO Online Editor Tana Wojcjuk turns her gaze skywards to those houses nestled in the trees, and to the experts devoting their lives to making them into fine architectural art.

My childhood notebooks are full of treehouse designs, whose shelves were characteristically full of books. One of these hideouts was so crowded with volumes that it only had room for a rolling chair (in retrospect not the best idea in a treehouse) that could lazily scoot between bookshelf, mini-fridge and window. My dreams were inspired by a wonderful book called Need a House? Call Ms. Mouse! by George Mendoza and illustrated by the amazing Doris Susan Smith. Smith’s futuristic houses included an aerie for Owl, complete with telescope to view the stars and a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house for a worm that curved around the interior of a pear.

For some, these dreams fade with adulthood, though I would argue that they never really leave us. For a very few, these dreams have become a livelihood. Pete Nelson builds treehouses. For a living. Pete is an anomaly among builders, as the co-founder of Treehouse, Inc he not only builds world-class treehouses for others, but has created The Treehouse Workshop to teach others how to make their childhood dreams come true. Starting out, treehouses seemed to be the simplest thing for Pete to build. His structures eventually became complex, beautifully designed shelters for adults.

When Pete meets with a potential treehouse client he asks what the intended purpose of the structure is, not only for practical reasons but because even after building hundreds of high-flying houses he’s curious about the urge to take to the trees:

“I ask, what's it being used for? Is it just an escape pod? An office? This is very rare! I’m always surprised how few are built as offices. People build them to retreat from their lives. Some are used every day, but the vast majority revolve around places to relax, get away, sleep. An extra bedroom, art studio (completely different from an office). Whatever that program is you have to fit into what the trees are telling you you can do.”

© Photo Courtesy of Pete Nelson

Pete has put decades of effort into making sure anyone who wants a treehouse can get one. His custom houses can be intricate, but he emphasizes that we’re drawn to these houses as children because they lift us above mundane adult concerns—and it doesn’t take a fancy treehouse to do that. Simple treehouses can seem most like a refuge. Furnished with a few comfortable pieces, they are a blank slate for imagining new worlds. No wonder so many are used for making art.

In childhood, treehouses hold sway over the imagination. They provide shelter but also a respite from adults and an adult-sized world. They give kids a vantage point from which to see the world as it appears sometimes in dreams: spread out like a map but also strangely foreshortened, the distance between home and the horizon measurable by the distance between thumb and forefinger.

In building a treehouse, there are several unique elements to consider: Each treehouse is different because it has to be suited to the needs of the tree. A tree must be able to support a good, strong platform. Specific hardware is required so as not to cut off the tree’s circulation, and some simple tests need to be done to make sure the tree is not rootless or diseased. This, Pete says, is called “Arbor-work” and his workshops always include an Arborist along with a team of builders.

© Photo Courtesy of Pete Nelson

The Arborist helps make sure that the treehouse is working with the tree: for instance if a house is moored to different types of trees it’s important to know how each one might behave in a high wind. If one tree moves more than another, or if the platform stays put while the trees want to whip about the house will be torn limb from limb.

Pete and his team build several treehouses each year, and the Workshop gives usually two classes per year (around 5 days per class). But there are many more aspiring tree-dwellers than Pete could accommodate in a class, or who have their own builder-skills but have trouble sourcing the necessary tools. For these, Pete has started Nelson Treehouse and Supply, launching in November to supply DIY-ers who dream of their own eagle’s nest. It will provide hardware, plans for a variety of treehouses, expert tips on working with your tree, building a platform, raising walls and roofs, everything but mail you a lincoln-log kit to make a treehouse like the Sears and Roebuck catalog used to do. Although Pete hinted that Treehouse kits are also in the works.

Pete’s first book Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb provides some interesting history proving humanity has been captivated by treehouses since Antiquity. Roman emperors had treehouses furnished with marble set in the branches of oak trees. There was even a treehouse at the Palace of Versailles. The original treehouses were of course not houses at all, but the natural refuge of a species with no fangs, fur or claws to protect them. It is the same reason we don’t like to move from a light room into a dark hallway, we are visible to possible predators and yet can’t see what might be lurking there.

This need for protection never fully passed out of us. Frank Lloyd Wright had it in mind when he developed his idea of “nesting” and “perching.” Along with enclosed, cozy “nests” he liked to create a series of “perches” in his homes, where people could look out over a great expanse—protected and yet the master of all they could see.

Another philosophy influenced this aspect of Wright’s design: letting nature in. He believed that architecture should work in harmony with the land around it, rather than manhandling the land for the sake of the structure. Pete too is inspired by this idea, and although he emphasizes that he has no formal training as an architect (why he calls himself a builder instead) he has designed innumerable treehouses built to harmonize with nature:

© Photo Courtesy of Pete Nelson

“An inspiration to me were the architects Greene & Greene, who were building around the turn of the last century in Pasadena, CA. It’s harder to work in a wet environment like Seattle, but their California houses were like treehouses—wide open with great big overhangs. They always sided them beautifully with what was there.”

The Greene brothers’ Gamble House in Pasadena, CA. feels materially like a Wright house: built of deep red wood, with stained glass and custom-built furniture and fixtures. The house feels lighter than some Wright houses, being built in a more temperate climate than Wright’s Chicago homes. Broad doors and banks of windows let in sunlight and breezes, and the architects have given a nod to their principle material in friezes and stained glass pictures of trees, trees, trees. Even the stairs feel like a series of overlapping branches.

“Treehouses are the ultimate in terms of letting nature in,” Pete says. “You are completely subservient to the trees themselves in the design process. The trees aren't going anywhere and you don't want them to go anywhere, it’s an exciting process to find the tree you want to be in.”

Pete's tips for finding the perfect tree:

MYOO: What is the first thing to look for?

Pete: A healthy, mature tree, one that's well-established.

MYOO: How do you know when a tree is healthy?

Pete: Look up into canopy and look for signs of stress, discoloration or wilting, bare spots. Look where the tree is going into the ground. In urban areas, there's some danger of the ground having been reworked, you can bury the roots of the tree and really suffocate them. Susceptible trees to this: beech are easily suffocated, the big buttressing roots will die, little ones will replace them so tree will look green but a treehouse or heavy wind might bring it down.

MYOO: How can you tell when a tree has a good root system?

Pete: Look at the base of the tree: there should be a root flare, like putting a trumpet horn down on a table. If there's no flare there’s a chance it was backfilled or earthwork buried the roots a little deep. Redwoods, though, could care less about that. Are there any dangers to look out for in selecting a tree?
Trees often shed lower branches as they get taller. Where they have shed lower branches there will be cavities, where you should avoid building. Broad-leaf maples for instance in Seattle have a lot of dead wood. You want to make sure to remove this, since dead branches can fall and hurt someone. An Arborist can help you.

MYOO: Any trees to avoid?

Pete: Around Seattle we have a lot of cottonwood trees, they're great trees but have tendency to drop branches from way up high on a beautiful sunny day. A crack like a shotgun goes off on the most beautiful still days. Also avoid short-lived trees like Red Alder, these last for 50 yrs then they are gone. Some oaks are also surprisingly short-lived, like Swamp Oak. Pines can be a bit sensitive, but there are so many kinds of pine that I’d hate to rule them out. There aren’t a lot that I blackball. You can even build a treehouse in apple tree in your own backyard.

Tana Wojczuk is a cultural critic and the Online Editor of MYOO. Find her work at www.tanawojczuk.com, or follow her @tanawojczuk.

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Tags: Architecture

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