Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to [email protected].
Question from Noah in LA: Hi Brian, I have a 9-year old son that has been pestering me to build a treehouse for him. I would like to see him spend more time outside and get more exercise, so I’m thinking a treehouse is a good idea. I had a treehouse as a kid that brings back nice memories like hanging out with friends where our parents weren’t telling us what to do all of the time. I have decent carpentry skills including building our backyard shed from scratch. With a full-time job, a treehouse is going to be a big project but I’m thinking I can get my son and wife involved to help. I want to go about this the right way and make sure it’s safe. Can you give me a few tips to get started?
Answer: Hello, Noah. Building a treehouse can be a big undertaking depending on how elaborate you want to get. The cost can also get out of hand quickly, so let’s go with a basic design. The first thing to realize is that treehouses don’t come in kits with easy to follow directions. I’ll give you a basic step-by-step process but you’re going to need to do a lot of your own improvising depending on the trees you have in your yard. Approaching it with safety in mind is very important. Safety both while you are climbing trees to do the construction and safety for the kids when they are roughhousing in the finished treehouse. Still, building a treehouse can be incredibly fun and educational for everyone involved. Maybe even more important will be the lifetime memories your son will have also.
What follows are six basic steps that you should follow in sequence. But this is definitely not an exhaustive guide. Your design needs to be based on the size, shape, and strength of your tree(s). Your own DIY skills and budget will also be a big part of the project. Safety first!
Step 1. Pick the right trees or trees. You want a healthy tree that has stood the test of time for quite a few years. Hardwood trees are preferred (maple, oak, etc.). Trees that have at least 8” diameter main branches should be strong enough to support a modest size treehouse (one room 8’X8’ or 8’X10’). The bigger the treehouse, the bigger the tree needs to be, and having two or more trees for support is always better. A tree with a split trunk works almost as well as having two trees for support.
Also, consider how high off the ground you will build the house. The strongest branches are the ones closest to the ground. When deciding how high to build, consider both climbing up and down ladders while constructing it and the possibility of a rambunctious kid possibly taking a fall.
Step 2. Create a basic design. This is probably the trickiest part. Treehouses don’t come in a kit because the design has to match your trees and the design almost always changes a little as your construction progresses. The place to start is with the main supports. You have a lot of options. You can cantilever it off the main trunk. You can attach the main supports between the trunk and large branches. You can build it around the trunk with vertical supports going to the ground (like an elevated porch). I suggest that you get on YouTube to find examples with trees similar to how you will be supporting your specific design. After you’ve figured out where the main supports will be, you can decide how big the floor will be. That’s when you can purchase most of the needed materials.
Step 3. Select the materials. Your material list will be based on your specific design. You probably want to use extra strong materials because the tree is going to continue to grow and you’re probably going to improvise the design during construction. Treated wood and galvanized fasteners are your friends because everything will be exposed to the weather. The basics include:
Tip: Install a pulley early in the project to haul materials up into the tree. You can leave it there for the kids to haul their stuff up later.
Since a treehouse is a somewhat advanced DIY project, I’m assuming you already have the basic hand and power tools that you’ll need.
Step 4. Build the main supports and floor. Strongly anchoring sturdy supports is usually the most critical step in the process. Two important things to keep in mind is that the supports are the foundation of the entire house and you want them to last for many years to come. Take your time to plan how and where to support the treehouse. No shortcuts. Don’t hesitate to add braces as required. These can be either vertical supports going to the ground or diagonal braces from the floor supports back to the trunk of the tree. Attaching the braces and supports to the tree is where you usually use the biggest and longest galvanized lag screws with washers.
Once the supports are securely in place, you build the floor platform. One decision to make here is whether to cut the lumber on the ground or up in the air where it will be attached. Cutting it on the ground is safer but requires a lot of climbing up and down ladders. Noah, if you can do it safely, have your son or wife use the pulley to lift the lumber to you in the tree as you need it. If you decide to make the cuts on the ground, you can have other materials lifted to you for cutting and assembly once the basic floor is in place. Either way, remember the carpenters’ secret to "measure twice and cut once." Also, make the effort to get the supports and floor reasonably level.
Step 5. Walls, railings, and entrance. For safety, it can be a good idea to next put up the railings if these are part of your design. Even if it is not part of the final design, you may want temporary railings until you are ready to put the walls in place. You construct the walls using basic wall building techniques. The difference is that treehouse walls sometimes have odd dimensions - another reason to measure twice.
The entrance is also going to be unique to your design. Some treehouses have a trap door with a rope ladder and others have a front door with a permanent ladder (or stairs) going up. Or your creativity could come up with something else. Whatever it is, be sure your floor and/or wall design accommodates the entrance (and windows is applicable). It’s good if you can place the pulley so that it is accessible to the entrance of the finished treehouse.
Step 6. Put on a roof. You can use any common roof design or go as simple as a tarp supported by lightweight wood or even a rope tied between a couple of tree branches. Part of your decision is based on how weatherproof you want the treehouse.
That’s it, your homemade, family built treehouse is finished. (Except for maybe a paint job that includes colors and a design of your son’s choosing.) After a few weekends of construction, your son can be hosting a home warming for you and your wife.
Treehouses are truly creative DIY projects. How about sharing a few of your treehouse experiences? Please add comments.
Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected].
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Booking.com