David and Jeanie Stiles, authors of "Treehouses You Can Actually Build: A Weekend Project Book" and "Treehouses and Other Cool Stuff: 50 Projects You Can Build" discuss the joys of having a treehouse and share some safety tips.
Commitmentnow.com: What led you both to becoming experts in the field of tree house building?
David and Jeanie Stiles: At an early age I became compelled by the desire to build things in the woods like huts , clubhouses and above all treehouses. This addiction has never left me and prompted me to write several books ( with the help of my wife Jeanie) on the subject so that others might benefit from my experience.
Commitmentnow.com: What do you love most about tree houses?
David and Jeanie: I guess it is the feeling you get escaping one’s earth bound existence and being held up and supported in the arms of a tree. There is definitely a feeling of joy and excitement being there. It lets your dreams soar - and it doesn’t have to be a very fancy treehouse to get this feeling. Just a few boards to make a safe perch will do.
Commitmentnow.com: What are your thoughts on what a tree house can contribute to a child's memories of growing up?
David and Jeanie: Two words come to mind immediately - escape and independence. Every kid wants to escape into a world of make believe and imagine himself or herself as an action hero, or a movie star or as Tom Wolf put it “master of the universe”. A treehouse is a perfect place to do this.
A kid also feels that this getaway is his or her place and not one for parents to control. It is his home - his place to decorate, to celebrate, to store his own stuff, to invite friends, and to set the rules.
Commitmentnow.com: What are your ten best tips for a parent who is considering building a tree house for their child?
David and Jeanie:
1. Ask your kid what he or she wants. Once you find out , figure how much time it will take you to build it and then triple it unless you have specific building plans (such as those found in our books which can take as little as two weekends).
2. Look in the backyard to see if there are any trees (or even one tree) to support a treehouse. ( If there are no trees, a successful treehouse can be built using posts instead of trees.)
3. Decide whether the treehouse should be supported by the branches of the tree. This generally means the the treehouse will be higher up in the tree which makes it more difficult to build, but at the same time more exciting to be in. Treehouses built closer (like 6 to 7 feet from the ground) can be supported by posts which makes the treehouse easier to build.
4. Make a sketch of the treehouse, take it over to your neighbors and ask them for their advise. (You don’t have to take it.) Give them some cookies and apologize in advance for the noise you will be making. Bring your kids with you.
5. Check your house survey to make sure that you are not violating any setback rules enforced by your zoning or building codes. Avoid going to the building department unless you have to. If you do go, remind them that you are building a temporary play structure that will come down in a few years and that it is not an accessory building. If possible, show them a signed “OK to build” letter from your neighbor. Also, check to see if there are any neighborhood restrictions against treehouses. If there are - move out of the neighborhood.
6.Try to use as much recycled lumber as possible. Weathered wood looks the best, but make sure it is not rotten. Search the neighborhood for anyone replacing an old deck with a new one . The lumber they will be discarding is perfect for building s treehouse. Don’t under any circumstance paint a treehouse a bright color; instead try to make it blend in so it looks like it grew out of the tree. A classic treehouse should look like a kid built it. Use pressure treated wood in the ground and in the platform framing if you want it to last more than ten years.
7. Build the treehouse to the scale of a child. Avoid railings that are 36” high which for some kids is eye height and makes it impossible for them to see past it. Also, make the door only 4 or 5 feet high so that an adult has to bend over a little to enter. Your kids will love this! It makes adults bow in respect while entering their house.
8. Provide plenty of windows to allow light to enter the treehouse. Provide shutters on the window so the kids can have fun opening and closing them. Again make the windows at child height -- no higher than 30 inches at the sill from the floor. Don’t use glass in the windows as the local ‘bad’ kids will certainly throw rocks to break them. Consider adding skylights as well.
9. Unless the treehouse is absolutely rain proof, don’t use plywood to make a solid floor. Build the floor like a deck with space between the deck boards to allow water to drain off. This also helps keep air circulate in the treehouse and prevents rot. Kids will have fun peeking through the cracks to see who is below.
10. Let your kids know that it will take a lot of work, time (and money) to build a treehouse. Ask him or her to use some of their allowance to buy some nails or screws - they may object but they will feel proud if they do. It’s important to allow your kids to help out in the construction of the treehouse. They can help measure pieces of wood to be cut --an excellent way to get them to learn fractions. They can “catch” the sawed off piece of lumber as you cut it. They can even saw a few pieces if you build them a child’s saw-horse and clamp the wood to it (see our excellent book Treehouses and Playhouses, page 26. They can even help install lag screws, once you have started them in a properly drilled pilot hole, by using a long handled socket wrench. This will make them feel proud and they will probably remember this for the rest of their life.
Commitmentnow.com: What are some of the different types of tree houses that you think work well?
David and Jeanie: When a client asks us to design them a treehouse, we send them a list of fifteen types or styles of treehouses to choose from like Swiss Family Robinson, Pirate ship,Hobbit House or fairy castle, etc. We interview the kids and try to find out what they are “in to.”
Commitmentnow.com: What are some 'extras' that make a tree house a place that is truly soothing and enchanting for a child?
David and Jeanie: Once the treehouse is built there are many things that you can do to see that the kids get the most fun out of it: organize friends to sleep over; Set up a trolley line to the main house where refreshments can be sent back and forth. rig a zip line to a nearby tree (75 ft is a good distance); build an escape hatch or fireman’s pole; make a mail box for letters or notes; make a flag pole to display signal flags; add a cargo net or climbing wall; add a swing, hammock or slide.
Commitmentnow.com: What are some safety considerations when building a tree house?
David and Jeanie: If there are going to be any injuries they are most likely going to happen during the construction of the treehouse.
Improper use of ladders is a major cause of accidents and getting hit from things falling out of the treehouse can cause head injuries.
For example, don’t use a metal bucket to make a rope pulley since kids will certainly let it fall on someone's head. Instead, use a soft canvas or wicker basket and tie a stop knot in the rope to keep it from falling. Any wood that a kid might touch should be sanded smooth to avoid splinters. Kids are far more likely to get injured riding bicycles, skate boards, or playing sports than they are from playing in a treehouse.
Commitmentnow.com: If a parent wants to build a tree house for a young teenager, what can they do to make sure it is something the teenager will use for at least five years?
David and Jeanie: We once built a treehouse for a child that was still in the mothers womb which you might say is pushing it. Treehouses six feet or higher are appropriate for kids seven years and older. When kids reach the age of twelve tor thirteen, they may gradually lose interest in their treehouse. Try to encourage them to use it to get away from the stress of school work, go there to read a good book, paint a painting, use binoculars.
Commitmentnow.com: How has building tree houses impacted your life and your thoughts on childhood?
David and Jeanie: Many of the things that influenced my life, I learned during my first ten years. Most important things that I learned, I taught my self - sometimes by making mistakes, taking a chance, or trying something new. Every treehouse I build, I learn something new and every treehouse I design, I think will be the most perfect treehouse of all.
Commitmentnow.com: What type of tree house did your own children have? What did your family enjoy most about having a tree house?
David and Jeanie: The first treehouse I built was for our two sons forty some years ago. It was renovated and used by our daughter several years later, and still stands in our backyard. Over the years, it has needed boards replaced and a new set of stairs, but it still exists pretty much the same as when I built it. It has been through many water gun wars, snowball fights, and tea parties. Presently, the treehouse provides a shelter for and disguises our swimming pool pump. Nevertheless when our kids come to visit, they never fail to go back and revisit their old treehouse and their childhood memories.
To Purchase "Tree Houses You Can Actually Build" click here.
About the Authors: David Stiles is a designer/builder and illustrator, and the author of numerous how-to books, including Garden Projects, Rustic Retreats, Tree Houses, Playhouses and Sheds. He is a graduate of The Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy and Pratt Institute where he received his degree in Industrial Design. He has worked for many of the leading architectural firms in New York City and received two awards from the New York Planning Commission for his playground design for handicapped children.
Jeanie Stiles has co-authored six books with her husband. They divide their time between New York City and East Hampton, New York.