How to Project and Build a Habitable Treehouse

Lucia R
SAVE

Treehouses usually remind us of two things: childhood getaways and whimsical fantasy creatures living in the forest. Nowadays, building on trees is not relegated to fantasy or child's-play; the appeal of having a vast view and an less invasive, immersive natural experience have turned treehouses into a desirable design option. There are vacation treehouse cabins, event locations, treehouse hotels, treehouse homes... the possibilities are endless, as anything you can build on the ground can be built on a tree- albeit, with the proper modifications to make it possible.

How To

Choosing a tree or trees:

The first thing you have to do is figure out what kind of structure you're wishing to design- is it a tall structure, wrapped around one tree? Is it an horizontal extended structure? Is it a small, one story structure? If you're working with an assigned setting, you have to make sure your design is compatible with the amount of trees you have to work with. If there's only one tree, for instance, you can't design a wide horizontal structure which will need more trees to support itself. If you have a design in mind, but don't have a terrain yet, you'll have to look for one with the right trees to make your vision come true.

An important step while designing a treehouse structure is to find your "centerpiece tree"; the perfect tree is not too bendy and preferably full height, knowing the species of the tree you'll be working with is critical for this step. After you find your centerpiece tree, you'll have to make sure it's a healthy specimen; sick trees can die and fall in the future, taking your structure with it. Again, knowing the species of the tree is very important, as some of them have a tendency to fall.

The structure:

Treehouses are comprised of three structural components - a tying supportive structure, a main supporting structure and the main structure (walls, roof).

Treehouses are not nailed to the tree or trees supporting it, they're tied to them by a substructure. This tying supportive structure can be made by drilling holes into the tree, to insert big screw-like mechanisms that will attach the beams supporting the house's main structure to the tree; it can also be achieved with other structural solutions, some of them are steel articulations that encase the tip of the structural beams to tie them up,fixed angle brackets (drilled underneath the beams, leaving a space between the trunk and the structure), and even belts that go around the tree trunk and connect to the beams with a joint.

The main supportive structure is, in most cases, a deck, placed on beams already tied to the trees by the structural solution you decided to use; this deck doubles as the treehouse's ground floor. Stairs follow the same principle, if linked to a tree. This double structure mechanism allows the tree, or trees, and the house to move separately; the goal is to avoid structural damage due to the trees' movement caused by the wind, the same way some anti-seismic structures work on the ground.

The main structure has to be preferably made of plywood beams and joists, as these materials are lighter than concrete and masonry, and have more plasticity- the former is needed to avoid structure damage, due to the aforementioned movements of the structure caused by wind. Some beams can be made of steel, however, if the structural burdens are too heavy and extra support is needed.

It's better to prefabricate the walls and roof on the ground, to put less strain onto the structure and work easily inside it. Wall panels and other structural elements can be brought up by pulleys, or up the building's access stairs.

Some things to keep in mind:

- Make sure to keep your tree or trees healthy, bear in mind a tree is a living thing, and an important part of the ecosystem- it's in the tree's best interest and yours.

- When drilling holes in it, make sure you use a healing agent afterwards to help the tree heal itself and prevent infections that can cause it to get sick and die.

- Keep your tree well hydrated and keep an eye on that particular species' needs.

What do you think about treehouse structures? What are other restrictions and challenges to build one?
Leave your thoughts.

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Comments (3)

Stephen R, Architect Office - Other • Oct 2

I watch "Tree House Masters" on Animal Planet, most of which takes in the well being of the trees themselves and Mr. Nelson seems to realize if you kill the tree so goes the house. With this in mind he has devised a way to let the trees breathe and move and grow without restriction of the build.

2
Paul G, Architect • Sep 29

Agreed. We have tackled the design, documents and permitting for seven treehouses to date ranging from school libraries and residential to a camp for special needs children. Accessibility is very important when you get to permitting, especially in assembly occupancies. Utilizing structural components that have been tested in the specific tree species you are utilizing is becoming increasingly important.

1
Carrie M, Architect • Sep 26

Some important restrictions are permits and authorizations(which vary if it's a habitable structure), making sure the tree species isn't protected. Considerations should be given to the height at which to build the treehouse.

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