Building a treehouse: The tiny homes of the sky!
When many of us were kids, the idea of a backyard treehouse was the ultimate dream. It was a place away from parents, or away from siblings. We could bring our friends up there and form clubs. But how many of us actually had a treehouse? How many people even life in a place where it’s possible to build a treehouse? Even if you want to build your kids that treehouse you never had, there are still some barriers to cross. Of course, to build a treehouse, you need to actually have a tree. There are also zoning and permit requirements, just as there would be with any home addition. And even if you do have a tree, you need to make sure that the tree’s species isn’t protected by environmental laws. Just like some animals, various tree species are in danger of extinction. So, let’s take a look at how to build a treehouse, from filing for permits to decorating the inside.
Climbing the Legal Barriers of Building a Treehouse
While many homeowners roll their eyes at the need for permits, there is one primary reason that they exist: safety. The last thing you want is to have to tear down a treehouse you spent months, and a lot of money, building. For instance, a man in Pennsylvania tried building a treehouse for his eleven-year-old girl, but midway through, the zoning committee shut it down. However, the loving father was building the treehouse on a tree stump, which is not safe and stable. The board even suggested alternatives, but the father tried to appeal it instead. And now the girl has no treehouse.
Just like all zoning and permit issues, protocols differ from county to county and state to state, so it’ important to look up the requirements where you live. While you’re at it, if you live in a suburb, check in with your HOA. Are they the law? No. Are they even more ruthless than the law? Absolutely. Melania Trump is going to be dealing with the White House HOA long after she leaves for cutting down those crabapple trees. And if you don’t think the White House has an HOA, ask yourself this…with the amount of children who have lived in the White House, have you ever seen a treehouse?
Some of the most common restrictions include:
- Trees protected due to extinction risks
- Height-from-ground restrictions
- Can’t be built too close to property lines (generally no closer than 10 feet.
- Upgrades like electric and plumbing that changes the classification of the structure
Be Safe, Build Safe, Stay Safe
While they look fun and simple, treehouses are not as easy to build as going “nail some wood into the tree and camp out!” In fact, you don’t want a solidly fixed structure. Sounds strange? Well, trees will change throughout the seasons, and storms and other elements can move and alter the tree. If the structure is too rigid, the nails can pull, leading to sagging wood, and finally a disaster of wood and splinters on the ground. Also a crying child. Other mistakes people make:
- Don’t set any boards in the crotches of a tree. This will not only weaken the crotch, but it will collect water and ruin the wood too. And nobody wants a weak and soggy crotch, right?
- Bolting larger beams to the trunk kills trees. As the tree tries to grow around the beam, the bark (cambium) suffocates. It might take years, but the entire time, your tree is dying a slow death. Don’t commit arboricide!
- Likewise, avoid creating more holes than necessary. Though it might seem sturdier, this is a good way to weaken the tree and deprive it of nutrients.
- Make sure you don’t build too big and/or too high. The higher and bigger you go, the more support you need. If your tree isn’t capable of the support, it will all, literally, come crashing down.
- Finally, be realistic when you design your treehouse. If you go online and Google “treehouses,” you’re going to find some very ambitious pieces. While it would be amazing to have an Ewok village-type hut (like below), it won’t be easy to build.
Getting Started: From Finding that Special Tree to Making Plans
When it comes to treehouses, you need a tree that is very sturdy. The best trees are maple, oak, fir, beech, and hemlock. However, a nice, big oak tree isn’t something most people have in their backyards. If you do have trees in your backyard and have no idea what kind they are, call one of Zaarly’s arborists to help you choose the best tree on your property. Remember, it’s not a matter of how much support you can build into the tree. Too many holes will make it much weaker, and the heaviness of all the “support” will make a weaker tree sag. There’s also another option, if you want to make a bigger treehouse. More trees.
Have your tree? Great! Let’s make a blueprint! Take note of the tree’s shape and tilt. At the height you want your treehouse, measure the circumference of the trunk so you know what you’re working with. The first and most important part to design is the base of the tree house, working with where the tree will connect to the house. For the most stable tree houses, keep the tree in the center. The size and shape is going to depend on the size, shape, and species of the tree. If you have a thinner trunk, you’re probably not going to have a multilevel treehouse up there. If you somehow have a California Redwood on your property…well, good for you. Also, you’ll have some more options.
Now, we’re talking about creating your own blueprints, but let’s be honest—only a few of us are actual architects. Fear not! There are actually a lot of free treehouse plans out there on the web. The good folks over at MyMyDIY have a list of 38 free treehouse blueprints. Just keep in mind that you’re still going to need to adjust these plans to your tree. Like people and snowflakes, no two trees are the same. Still, pre-made plans are very helpful.
Let the Building Begin! Treehouse Construction
First, remember—safety, safety, safety. If your treehouse is going to be up higher, make sure you secure yourself to the tree. Select a hardwood variety, such as maple, hickory, or oak. Remember, though, you need to account for the tree changing over the seasons, so consult with an arborist if you aren’t sure what kind of wood to get. Now, got your tree picked? Blueprints ready? Big pile of wood on the ground? Great. Let’s build.
1) Build the frame
Using 2x6 or 2x8 beams, bolt them into your chosen tree with 3 10" long, 3/4" diameter galvanized lag screws and washers, centering them on either side of the trunk. Depending on the size and shape of your treehouse, you’ll want to make either a square around the tree, cutting the planks to fit between the two you placed already; or, cross two beams perpendicular above the first two. Your blueprint should indicate which kind of center you’ll need.
It might seem like the second option, with crisscrossing beams, is immediately better because it would be more secure, right? Again, the type of tree and size of the treehouse play a major factor. The four, full-size crossbeams might add unnecessary weight, leading to collapse later on.
2) Add the support posts
The most secure posts go directly into the ground from all four corners of the platform. Use 4x4 that go from the inside corners, level with where the floor will be, all the way to the ground. If your tree is sturdy enough, you can use the trunk, further down.
3) Add the flooring
Now that you have a solid, secure frame with support posts, it’s time to build the flooring of the treehouse. While following your blueprint, make sure that flooring runs perpendicular to the inner beams of the frame. This makes the platform safe and sturdy. Once the flooring is complete, the rest of the treehouse should be a lot easier to build.
From this point forward, your blueprint will dictate what you need to build and when, but you should always start with the walls. You will need frames, of course, and just as you did with the flooring, you are going to run the planks for the walls perpendicular to the vertical beams of the frame.
Note: Mare sure you leave an opening for a door; or, if you are going to use a trap door, don’t finish the walls until you have a proper entrance installed. Otherwise you might trap yourself outside!
5) Build the roof
While you can certainly build a wooden roof, there are easier options here. You could use a weatherproof fabric, or tarpaulin. Look at what would work best based on your blueprints. As well, considering that the roof can sometimes be pretty heavy, a lightweight material might serve you better anyhow.
6) Seal the wood
The elements are going to do a number on your treehouse over the years, so it is vital to seal the wood. Water can create wood rot and weaken the structure altogether. Sealing wood will also help prevent splinters.
7) Decorate and enjoy!
Is the treehouse for your children? Load it up with nature books and toys. An astronomy telescope might be perfect for them to gaze at the stars. Some bean bag chairs will also make the space a bit more cozy. Or maybe you want to set it up as a yoga studio as close to nature as possible. Maybe it’s just a place to read and relax. Whatever the reason, make it special for you and your family.
Need some help building your treehouse? Remember, there are many talented service providers on Zaarly who would love to make your dream treehouse a reality.
Talk to an arborist.
Reach out to a handyman!
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