May-June 2013 | Home & Garden

Pied-à-Air

Forget the rickety little structures of our childhoods: Today's tree houses are decidedly upscale

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Left: A 12-foot spiral staircase leads up to the tree house Brad Howell and his sons built in Kensington. Right: The interior of the Zaft tree house, which is built around a large willow tree. Photos by Erick Gibson

Dream House

Matt Zaft, 38, and his wife, Erin, 34, both wanted tree houses as kids, but neither ever had one. So they were determined to build a tree house for their daughters, Olivia, now 5, and June, 2.

The couple hired Fine Earth Landscape for the design and construction work, and chose a large willow in a far corner of the backyard of their Somerset home. To avoid harming the tree, Fine Earth decided to build around it. The 10-foot-by-5-foot walled tree house sits on sturdy stilts eight feet above the ground, with holes cut in the floor and roof for the tree’s trunk to pass through. To finish it off, builders added a 10-foot-long by 3-foot-deep balcony on the front of the structure.

The “pied-à-air” was outfitted with a 4-foot-tall Dutch door and a pulley system with a bucket, for a total cost of more than $10,000.

“When the girls first saw it, they were beyond excited,” Matt says. “Now it’s the first thing Olivia and her friends want to do if everyone comes over on a sunny day for a play date.”

The whimsical playhouse fits in well with the creative landscaping around it. A small wooden bridge arches over a mock dry riverbed, and a swing hangs from a nearby tree. Underneath the tree house, there’s a hammock, Matt’s favorite place to hang out.

“It stays completely dry, even in the rain,” he says. “It’s beautiful out there.”

A Father-Sons Project

In 2002, Brad Howell was determined to teach his young boys, 6-year-old Tommy and 8-year-old Jack, the basics of woodworking. He had recently left his career as a boat captain to become a stay-at-home dad, while his wife, Annie, now 48, pursued a career in communications and public relations at the Discovery Channel, then located in Bethesda.

“I needed a challenge,” the 52-year-old Kensington resident says now. “And I love carpentry.”

A tree house seemed like the perfect project for his boys. Howell began looking at plans and pictures, ultimately pulling ideas and inspiration to create his own design. The more he thought about it, though, the grander it became. “I was worried about neighbors objecting to the ever-increasing size,” he says. “So I planned to mimic the general appearance of the Cape Cod home that we live in.”

Visitors reach the 8-foot-by-6-foot walled tree house by climbing a 12-foot-high spiral staircase. The wooden steps wrap around one of the two giant black cherry trees that buttress the tree house on either side. A triangular gabled roof covers its one room.

“I envisioned that we’d have a family sleepover up there,” says Howell, who spent six months and $1,500 on the project. “We did manage to pull that off—once. So I was happy.”

As the boys grew older—Jack is now 19 and Tommy is 17—the tree house transformed from a birthday party hangout to a rec room. It stills earns kudos from passersby.

“Sometimes when people park to go to the church next door, we’ll get a shout,” Howell says. “Someone will just randomly yell, ‘Hey, I like your tree house!’ ”