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Friday, July 15, 2016

Treehouse Architecture

Treehouses--they're not just for boys anymore.
Treehouses...they're not just for kids anymore. Actually, they never were exclusively for kids. In parts of some nations such as Indonesia and Brazil, where the trees far outnumber the inhabitants by a considerable margin, the treehouse is, in fact, the indigenous form of architecture. However, in this country where the tree population is more nearly on a par with those living among them, the treehouse has come to be the indigenous form of backyard architecture. Some might dispute the use of that term for what they visualize as the slapdash nature of such user-built structures. Perhaps, but they should take a look up at that which treehouse architects are producing today. Though it'll probably never become mainstream, treehouse architecture is today a far cry from a bunch of discarded boards nailed helter-skelter among the branches of some poor, put-upon, backyard oak. Treehouses have now become cutting edge domestic architecture.
Indigenous architecture of the rain forests.
The American incarnation of the treehouse is, for the most part, a 20th-century phenomena, largely a post-WW II architectural development corresponding with the arrival of suburbia, backyards, and old-growth trees. In growing up during the 1950s, I never had a tree house, but I did have a barn with a loft and lots of baled hay I could (just barely) rearrange into the equivalent. Kids, especially boys of a certain age, love treehouses for the privacy they provide away from the presence and prying eyes of their mothers. If it had a floor, walls, a roof, and a ladder mothers would be unlikely to climb, anything more was pure luxury. Some I knew had old carpeting, transistor radios, pillows, blankets, ice chests, an electric light, and a small library of old Playboy magazines (under the carpeting).

Kid-built "architecture"
As with most other types and styles of architecture, treehouses have come a long way since the first kid nailed a board or two into a backyard tree (above). First of all, that kid has now grown up and taken the physical form of an adult. But deep within, there often still remains the rambunctious kid who loves to climb trees, build things, and get away from the prying eyes of mothers and others. Whether or not they've become professional architects, designing and constructing a treehouse is not rocket science (or brain surgery). The result is carefully planned and stylishly designed works of arboreal architecture that would boggle the mind of parents (below).

The world's largest treehouse (bottom-left) rises twelve stories
among the trees. The pricey kid, (bottom-right) comes with
its own tree...sorta.
With professional architects now having picked up where the backyard gang left off, maybe it's time we looked at the very definition of the treehouse. A treehouse is a house in which a tree resides. You think I'm joking? Take a look at the treehouse below designed by the Kazakhstani architectural firm of A. Masow. The structure doesn't reside in a tree, but rather the tree is totally encompassed by a four-storey glass cylinder (below). It's a fascinating idea, a radical departure from the norm, and suggests a whole new definition of the "treehouse." I'm not sure I'd want to live there, though.

Usable space in the upper levels is severely limited.
The point is that, whether the treehouse is designed by a professional architect, or is the fantasy creation of a would-be carpenter with WAY too much time on his or her hands, there is today no one look, no one style, and few rules which define what a treehouse should be. As the montage below illustrates, there are as many different possibilities as there are builders. And, of course, the trees themselves have something to say in the matter. The design must cater to an existing structural framework, and do so without significantly harming the living, breathing, growing, tree itself.

Adult treehouses. Kids are optional.
As many different treehouses as there are, they all fall into two basic categories--those which are supported by one or more trees, and those built on "stilts" with little or no support from the nearby trees. The lofty playhouse (top) would appear to employ both types of support. The traditional definition of a treehouse, however would be one supported solely by the tree in which it's built (below).

Traditional architectural styles applied to the
tree-supported treehouse.
One of the qualities modern-day treehouse architects seek to achieve is that of making their creation blend with the trees and other elements of the environment in which it exists. A Canadian firm, Farrow Partnership Architects, has designed for the E’terra Samara Resort of Tobermory, Ontario, Canada, (four hours northwest of Toronto on the shores of Lake Huron) a number of prefabricated treehouses allowing guests to retreat from civilization and luxuriate in nature. The pod is made of locally harvested wood and features a deluxe, one-bedroom space. This tiny getaway was purposely designed and constructed to blend in with the surroundings while also being environmentally friendly. It boasts an eco-friendly shower, a non-toxic fabric roof, and because it is raised, does not harm the landscape.

A treehouse as beautiful inside as outside.
A different approach was taken by a company called Tham & Videgard for another hotel located in the northern part of Sweden. The Treehotel was a concept designed to break the monotony of the general, city-based hotels and other lodging facilities. They took to the concept of living in nature literally, and opted to create a handy but comparatively exotic unit by building it amongst the trees, offering the guests a unique experience living within nature’s quarters. Materials used to create this unique nature friendly unit include reflective glass on the outside which helps in camouflaging the unit, the base of aluminum, and wood for the furniture and fixtures inside. There are also special sticker units on the windows, which prevent birds from entering within, but allow for complete ventilation of air. Built as single unit luxury suites among the trees, there are separate partitions within each structure, which can accommodate 2 people. This includes a living room, double bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and even a rooftop terrace.

At night (upper photo), the Microcube unit practically disappears.

Treehouse hardware.
So, having seen all this, you think you'd like to try building your own treehouse (for the kids, of course). Here's some things you should know. You'll need a set of professionally created plans if for no other reason than to insure the structural integrity of your treetop abode. Remember, trees are alive. They move, blown by the wind. Your treehouse must be sturdy but not rigid. Moreover, it also has to be safe for the kiddies (as safe as any playhouse can be, twelve to twenty feet off the ground). You don't just scrounge up some old lumber and start pounding nails. In fact nails should never come in contact with the tree itself. The proper hardware (below) is the key in making a safe, sturdy, flexible treehouse. As for the plan, choose carefully, scaling the treehouse to the size and strength of the tree (hardwood trees work best). The plan (below) is pretty generic and perhaps hard to read, but it provides a good base for various creative styles as the work progresses.

By incorporating as many major limbs or separate trees into
your design, weight is spread more evenly, improving the structural
integrity of your treehouse.
And now, how to build a treehouse from ten easy pictures--

Total cost for materials...approximately $2,800.
Not exactly blending with nature...

Treehouse of the "good ole days."


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