Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Build a Tree House

If you’ve been reading this blog from the earliest entry forward (and who hasn’t?), then you may recall my view of retirement as a time to experience your “second childhood,” using that term in the best possible sense. What better than a tree house to evoke memories of those halcyon days from your original childhood?

I do recognize that not everyone had the opportunity to have a tree house your first time through childhood. For one thing, you may not have grown up with a large tree in the backyard, or perhaps you had no backyard period. But – if you have a backyard now, and, if it has a large tree – this is your chance to make up for that big empty spot in your youth.

My brothers and I did have a tree house - of a sort. Basically, it was a roughly 4-foot square platform made from old lumber sitting on a couple of low branches in a wide-spreading Yellow Transparent apple tree behind our house. I think we nailed a couple of boards into the trunk so we could get up there. Frankly, I never spent much time there because it was pretty uncomfortable and there wasn’t a whole lot you could do except wait for small, hard, green apples to fall on your head when the wind blew – sort of like being pelted with golf balls by an unseen duffer.

This time I’m going to do the whole tree house thing much better. I’ve been reading all the tree house design books in our local library system (and there is a surprisingly large number of them) for ideas. These books are nothing if not inventive. There are tree houses of all shapes, sizes, architectural styles, materials, amenities and price ranges. A few literally have electricity and serve as actual homes for adventurous sorts. Some are veritable villages of tree houses spread throughout a grove of trees with suspended walkways between them.

The tree house I’m planning is unlikely to be featured in any of these glossy books. I’d just like a simple deck-like structure at least slightly above the roofline of my ranch-style house.

I think I may have a pretty good candidate for a host tree – a large honey locust with dappled shade and widely spaced branches. It seems healthy and strong, the trunk is pretty straight, and there’s a spot about 15 feet above the ground that would seem to offer some solid attachment points. I live in a fairly high area of Madison, and I’m hoping from my tree house I can see Lake Wingra about a mile away and, if I’m really lucky and other trees aren’t in the way, catch a glimpse of our state capitol dome.

I don’t need anything big or fancy – I’d just like a little deck with a railing that can accommodate a couple of comfortable chairs. I am willing to allow one friend to join me, but I’m not looking to throw any parties up there. I’ve found a simple design that is basically a wedge attached to both sides of the main trunk that flares out to a width of about six feet. Because the entire deck is attached to the same part of the trunk, I won’t have to worry about different branches swaying wildly during a gusty windstorm and pulling my deck apart – or ripping a supporting branch off my tree.

I envision many summer mornings sitting on my tree deck with my thermos of coffee, enjoying the dappled shade while reading the paper. Afternoons will be equally leisurely, relaxing with a good book and a cool beverage, or just napping in my chair, or enjoying the view from my aerie. The tree is very open in the interior, a feature that, along with the not-too-dense shade and a slight breeze will, I hope, discourage mosquitoes. And since my backyard is surrounded by a six-foot-tall stockade style fence, I shouldn’t need to worry about my tree deck becoming an “attractive nuisance” to neighborhood kids who might take an unplanned plunge from 15 feet in the air.

Needless to say, I would also prefer to avoid plunges, unplanned or not, from my tree deck. The railing will need to be good and sturdy and I may have to limit my cool beverages on summer afternoons. I’ll need a strong ladder as well, since that’s a bit of climb and, to be honest, I’m not terribly fond of heights. I think I’ll be fine once I’m sitting on my tree deck, but I can imagine my heart will be pounding the first few times I make the trip up and down the ladder.

You may decide not to build a tree house for yourself, but for your grandkids or some other extremely fortunate young people whose undying love you will earn by so doing. In that case, I’ll send you back to the many tree house design books available through the library, online, at your local bookseller or a big box home supply store. The variety really is incredible and they don’t need to be high in a tree, or even attached to a tree at all. Many are supported entirely or partially on posts and are just high enough off the ground to give the kids a fun sense of elevation. I’d let the kids help pick the design and the only limits are your collective imagination, carpentry skills and budget – and some designs in these books could clearly start to run into real money.

One final piece of advice – it would probably be smart to consult with your local authorities to determine whether there are any building codes that must be observed or permits acquired. I was surprised, pleasantly, to find upon calling city hall that my tree deck could be built free of bureaucratic oversight, but that may not be true for you. Also, depending on its placement and visibility, it would be wise to let the neighbors know what you’re planning just in case they might have some heartburn over it. Especially if you’re planning to borrow their tools.

Or at least let them know that they or their kids will be welcome guests occasionally. Maybe they’ll even offer to donate some construction labor.

Just remember, according to one of the books I read, most falls out of tree houses occur during the construction period. Be careful and don't be afraid to get some professional help if you're looking at a house as high as mine.

Note: Photo is from

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