Look up in the trees this spring and you’re likely to spot more than birds, squirrels and the occasional lost balloon. All over the Bethesda area, people are branching out into their backyards by building tree houses. And these lofty abodes aren’t just a few leftover planks nailed together and lodged in the notch of an old maple, either. They’re handcrafted playhouses for kids—and occasionally adults—that can cost as much as a small car or more.
Homeowners looking to put up a treetop dwelling have three options: Do it themselves; hire a general contractor or yard design specialist, such as Fine Earth Landscape in Poolesville; or call in a tree house expert, such as Nelson Treehouse and Supply in Fall City, Wash., or Tree Top Builders of West Chester, Pa., both of which have worked on projects in the Bethesda area.
No matter who does the heavy lifting, builders say tree houses are a growing trend. “We’re getting more and more requests for them,” says Joel Hafner, 45, owner of Fine Earth Landscape. “I think it’s because people had—or wish they had—a tree house when they were kids, and now they want their children to experience one.”
So how does someone get into the business of building arboreal abodes?
“I had to create this job for myself,” says Pete Nelson, founder of Nelson Treehouse and Supply. “I thought that if I could set myself up as the tree house guy, it would be a neat way to do all the things I love—design, architecture, using my hands and traveling.”
That was two decades ago. Since then, he has built about 250 tree houses across the country and as far away as Japan, Morocco, Germany and Spain. His celebrity clients include fashion designer Donna Karan and actor Val Kilmer, who commissioned a lavish tree house overlooking the Pecos River on his ranch in New Mexico.
Even if you’re not a Hollywood star, these lofty retreats don’t come cheap. The price depends on how tricked out you want your tree house to be; popular accessories include zip lines, swings, decks and bridges. “I can take a 10[-foot] by 10[-foot] tree house and build it for $5,000 or $50,000,” says Dan Wright, owner of Tree Top Builders.
Nelson’s most expensive undertaking was a San Diego tree house that included a full kitchen, bathroom, air conditioning, a brick fireplace, 920 square feet of living space, and a deck measuring more than 500 square feet. Cost? A cool $500,000.
Despite the interest in fancy add-ons, most tree house owners are primarily concerned about safety, builders say.
“You have to take into account that kids are going to be using them,” Hafner says. “You have to be careful when you put the roofing on, so that a bunch of nails don’t poke through; you have to sand all the wood pretty well to take care of the splinter factor; and the steps have to be shorter so they don’t trip.”
Occasionally, builders will get a call from parents who claim to want a tree house for their children. “Then you get to their property and you see it’s clearly something they had in mind for themselves,” Nelson says. “I guess some people are embarrassed that they want their own little place.”
The wide range of clients demonstrates the universal appeal of tree houses. “They’re for kids of all ages,” says Michael Garnier, founder of Treehouses.com, which sells building kits to the do-it-yourself set, “because everyone can relax and have fun in them.”