Treehouses: up and away

For kids of all ages, they still make great backyard escapes


As a child, Gary Hatley had always dreamed of having a treehouse in his backyard to escape to and play out his adventure fantasies with his friends. As a father in his early 40s, he found that the fever had never quite died.

When his son, Jack, was 4 or 5 years old, Hatley, who lives in Columbus, Ga., drew a sketch of a treehouse - a small, cabinlike structure featuring a big backyard oak climbing through its center.

Jack was enamored with the drawing.

"He just loved the idea," said Hatley, now 50 and the owner of a landscaping-management business. "He wanted a treehouse, and I said, `When you get old enough to help me build it, we'll do it.' And he wouldn't ever let me forget it."

About five years later, after first building a large, elevated deck also featuring a big oak climbing through its heart, Hatley embarked on the treehouse. He had used a do-it-yourself deck-building book to guide him through construction of the deck, which sits 12 feet in the air, and he applied the same recipes for safety to his treehouse.

He abandoned the age-old practice of nailing salvaged wood scraps to a tree at haphazard angles and decided to make a safe, professional-quality treehouse surrounding a tree but supported by separate treated telephone pole posts, secure in the ground.

A year and $3,000 to $4,000 in materials later, he had built a dream tree home for his children featuring a secret door, windows and a bridge connecting the treehouse to the elevated deck.

The tradition of building small structures in trees dates centuries, and even today treehouses seem almost universally to spark the imagination of young children, who imagine a place where they can escape from the practical, rule-laden adult universe.

But treehouses also remain places of intrigue for plenty of adults.

Anna Daeuble, designer and office manager for the Seattle-based Treehouse Workshop, said children and adults alike love having a place where they can escape and make their own rules.

"We work a lot with adults that are sort of fulfilling their childhood dream of having an elaborate treehouse that they could never have as a child," she said.

Treehouse Workshop builds treehouses across the country at prices starting at about $7,500 for a children's tree deck, with a railing and stairs leading up to it, and climbing to about $50,000 for more elaborate treehouses.

But for folks on a shoestring budget, Daeuble said there's nothing wrong with embarking on a do-it-yourself project.

"When you're doing that, finding salvaged materials is a cool way to do it," she said. "It's sort of the tradition of building treehouses."

But she cautions that you should have a tree checked by an arborist to make sure it's healthy; follow basic deck-building rules for safety; avoid using nails, which pull out easily; and seek professional advice. (Treehouse Workshop offers $60-per-hour phone consultations for do-it-yourselfers.)

Hatley found learning to build a deck first was a great way to learn how to construct a safe treehouse. He used treated lumber and privacy fence (the rounded top cut off) for siding and greenhouse material for the roof. For safety, he supported the treehouse almost entirely from the ground (using treated telephone poles), screwed everything together and added lots of extra joists for support.

Hatley avoided inserting nails and screws into the tree, in part because he didn't want to create entry points for insects or disease.

Despite the fact that the work was often tedious and sometimes scary, the rewards keep coming.

"It's fun for me to see 10 to 15 kids in our backyard, and they're all having fun in the treehouse," Hatley said.

Mostly, though, because he became a father relatively late in life, he thinks of the treehouse as a way to make his mark for generations he might never know. He imagines his kids one day telling their children about the cool treehouse their father built.

"I wanted to leave some sort of a legacy," he said. "I know I say that I built it for him, but probably I built it for me."


Follow these tips for building a treehouse that's safe, sturdy and long-lasting:

Use single, large bolts for main supports.

Don't use nails for main supports. They are much weaker than bolts and can work loose easier, and you usually need many more to do the same job, which will cause more damage to the tree.

Treat the tree with respect as a living thing. Allow for future growth as you build.

Don't cut away excessive amounts of bark or wood.

Don't use cables or ropes wrapped around branches for support. These wear away at bark and sensitive layers below. As the branch grows, cable or rope will cut off nutrient flow to the rest of the branch.

Don't let any part of the tree house touch the tree directly - it should all be resting on your support system. This stops friction burns as the tree sways in the wind.

Children's tree houses are safest near the ground - 10 feet high or less - to minimize the danger from a fall.

Tree houses in high-wind areas should be in the lower third of the tree, where wind speeds are lower and the leverage of the force on the tree is reduced.

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