“Choose the right tree,” says Dustin Feider, whose company O2, based in Oakland, Calif., builds high-end treehouses for clients around the country, including a $500,000 one that he’s currently working on in Sonoma County. Feider’s designs tend to be modern and whimsical, like his pinecone-shaped, geodesic-glass treehouse suspended 50 feet up in a cluster of redwoods. His obsession with treehouses started when he was a child in Pewaukee, Wis., where he cobbled together his first structure up a poplar using scrap lumber pilfered from a nearby construction site.
Building a treehouse usually requires drilling into a tree; talk to a local arborist first. Look for a hardwood or conifer with a trunk that’s at least one foot in diameter when measured 4½ feet off the ground. If you don’t have a strong-enough tree, you can use stilts as supports. Remember, trees grow and change just like humans do. Your design should take into account the inevitable maturation of both. If you’re building for a 6-year-old, take into consideration what that child might enjoy as a 12-year-old. Don’t be limited by your preconceptions. “Maybe it doesn’t need to be that Berenstain Bears, cabin-in-a-tree kind of treehouse you grew up knowing,” Feider says.
Secure your beams to the tree using specialized treehouse-attachment bolts, which help minimize damage. To foster adventurousness, build your platform at least eight feet off the ground. “It should be out of reach of an adult,” Feider says. It helps to have some basic construction know-how and a willingness to look up engineering questions like the weight capacity of your bolts or the span capacity of the wood you’re using. Consult a professional if you feel unsure or if you want to build at a height that you wouldn’t survive falling. Do-it-yourselfers should consider a simple platform with railings as a starting point. How people get into your treehouse will depend on user demographics. A simple rope ladder often works but maybe not if Grandpa wants to go up.
If you’re building for a child, include some classic features like a trap door, a rope and pulley and maybe even a ship’s steering wheel. But don’t feel obliged to trick it out too much; the real point of a treehouse is to be up a tree. Let the change of perspective — the elevated proximity to bark, branches and leaves — be the central experience.