By Joshua Oliver
Pete Nelson’s treehouses are homes for your inner child. But rather than playhouses, the bespoke builder crafts retreats, studios, extra bedrooms and even second homes up in the branches. Whatever their purpose, his builds, which start from $300,000, are “places to unplug and get away from the day-to-day”.
Nelson’s Seattle-based company Nelson Treehouse has built arboreal retreats from Hawaii to Norway, and he promotes treehouse architecture through his Animal Planet reality television show ‘Treehouse Masters’.
How did you get into treehouse design?
I’m a very visual person, and the impetus was half a block up the road from where I was living [in Colorado] in 1987. It was a kids’ treehouse that was just so beautifully done: a whimsical but practical little club house.
It had this corrugated metal siding, but then all the trim around it was half-timber, almost like a Tudor [house] in England. It had pullies, this rack [pair] of antlers and an old miner’s lamp hanging off of it. Seeing it like that, perched in a perfect cottonwood tree, I thought, “That is what I’m talking about.”
I went to work on a coffee-table book that would show treehouses that adults could enjoy: follies, if you will. It took me seven years to find the tree houses I was looking for. That book came out in 1994.
How would you describe your style?
I’m a lot like a chameleon. I rely on clients to tell me their fantasies. My underlying design style is a little more traditional. I love old shingle-style houses. I grew up going out to Long Island and remember being mesmerised by some of the summer houses in the Hamptons.
There was a bit of a revival in the early 1980s of that style. That was when I was thinking about what the houses I would build would look like. It was those double gables and sweeping roofs.
What attracts your clients to treehouses?
For the typical client, I think it’s nostalgia: the majority are thinking about a treehouse they didn’t build as a kid, and now they have the wherewithal to do it. In treehouses, there’s this almost childlike sense of excitement about what’s being created. When it’s handed over, there are tears of joy — it’s not made up in the television show.
What is one project which you regret?
One of the last treehouses we created on our TV show, just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is known for its glass and steel industries. It feels like blasphemy to say this because of my team and how hard we worked on it, but it looks like we put an office tower in a tree. It’s so ugly it’s embarrassing. It’s such a big pile of glass and steel. I haven’t admitted that to anyone.
Which treehouse by another designer do you really admire?
The Pine Cone Treehouse, created by Dustin Feider. I’ve worked with him a few times. He’s a remarkable, young, very talented builder. It just kills me how beautiful it is. And you can stay in it.
How long do treehouses last?
Picking your trees carefully is important. A lot of it is being smart and going into the trees you know are long-living. We recommend you have a certified arborist check the health of your trees.
We have had several instances of trees succumbing to whatever. It’s not the end of the world — unless you are in only one tree, which is highly uncommon. With some surgery, you can put in a post to replace a whole tree.
Does building a treehouse harm the trees?
Trees are so resilient. The typical hole we bore into them for a treehouse attachment bolt is three inches in diameter. The tree responds physiologically very quickly by compartmentalising that wound. It sends saps and reaction wood.
Within a very short period, you’ll see a lip of new growth around the outer edge of where you’ve penetrated the tree. I’m looking for that to make sure the tree is responding in the normal way. It will just grow around that hardware.
How do you make sure your designs are safe?
Trees grow and move in the wind. If you don’t accommodate that flexibility, your platform will be pulled apart. If wind is whipping up high, the trunk could be moving one inch in all directions.
My first treehouse, the office I built in 1994, had these pendant lights. When storms hit I would have this feeling of wooziness and the treehouse would move and the pendant lights above my desk would too. I’d get sea sick.
How sustainable are your designs?
These are the most sustainable structures you can imagine. We often find recycled materials. We will scrounge and scavenge, although the materials are quite high-end. In the Seattle area, we have a lot of older wooden buildings coming down, so we have all this Douglas fir that we are re-milling. That’s very much part of treehouses: recycling, reusing, upcycling.
What trend in treehouses excites or infuriates you?
The beautiful thing about treehouses is that it’s amateurism at its best — not shoddy workmanship but from the same root as amour, which means love. So it’s something you are passionate about — you really love the idea of going into your backyard and creating something. In so many cultures, the treehouse is that first bigger step for a future builder.
Photographs: Lloyd Photographers; Pete Nelson/Nelson Treehouse