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Up a Tree



When we think about tree houses, most of us we probably think of the ramshackle platforms built by kids and suspended precariously up in backyard oaks or sycamores. (Those of us who are a bit older might also think about the amazing makeshift domicile in the movie “Swiss Family Robinson” or the wonderful “ride” of the same name at Disneyland.)

Not long ago, however, my daughter guided me to a trio of publications that cover tree houses from an entirely different perspective. In reading them, I was enlightened to the fact that, first of all, tree houses aren’t just for kids. Moreover, I discovered that there are some surprisingly sophisticated designs out there and, in fact, a great worldwide tradition of tree-house construction.

It may be hard to believe, but it’s true: There are structures in trees that serve as offices, homes, resort accommodations or even corporate headquarters. And these days, even tree houses built for children have reached a level of precision, design and creative flair that is truly impressive.

In a very real sense, tree houses, like swimming pools, are all about fun and adventure. And having seen the sophistication of tree houses as captured in these books, it no longer seems unlikely to me that, one of these days, creating such a structure might well be part of one of my project designs.

[ ] The first text is Tree Houses of the World by Pete Nelson (Harry Abrams, 2004). This 223-page, heavily illustrated text covers (as the title suggests) tree houses as a global phenomenon. Nelson is, it turns out, something of a tree-house guru: he’s built some remarkable structures, conducts conferences on tree-house design and construction and even invented an anchoring device designed to allow these structures to move safely in heavy winds.

His book covers tree houses for adult use and offers 50-plus case studies with some truly mind-blowing designs – including one, mentioned above, that serves as headquarters for a thriving corporation. He also covers tree houses dressed up as everything from private residences and personal offices to resort lodgings. Along the way, he goes into impressive detail on construction, covering lumber spacing as well as tree species best suited to this sort of construction – and those that should be avoided. He also provides a comprehensive set of resources.

[ ] In Tree Houses: A View from the Top by John Harris (First Lyons Press, 2003), you get a good look at structures built for both kids and adults. Harris is from Great Britain, and 174-page book and its 25 case studies reflect a variety of elaborate tree-house designs that have been executed in Europe.

He also covers fictional tree cities, exploring the elaborate Ewok Village built for “Return of the Jedi,” one of the Star Wars movies, and the elaborate sets for Lothlorien, home to elves in the first movie in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Here and elsewhere, he slides easily into technical details about platforms, stairs, ladders and rails.

[ ] Then there’s Ultimate Tree Houses by David Clark (Salamander Books, 2003). This slim, 80-page book examines the surprisingly rich history of tree houses and includes wonderful photographs of incredibly elaborate structures – including a section on tree houses of the future featuring a design in which a platform is suspended on bungee cords amid of stand of palm trees.

Bottom line: This is all terrifically fun stuff. No doubt it will be a rare design project in which I’m asked to throw a tree house in along with an elaborate watershape, but knowing more about the topic now, I know I won’t be shy about offering the possibility of a bit of arboreal luxury if the situation seems right.

Mike Farley is a landscape designer with more than 20 years of experience and is currently a designer/project manager for Claffey Pools in Southlake, Texas. A graduate of Genesis 3’s Level I Design School, he holds a degree in landscape architecture from Texas Tech University and has worked as a watershaper in both California and Texas.

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