The Edge

5 Tips for Building the Ultimate Tree House

The aerial playhouses certainly aren't just for kids anymore

5 Tips for Building the Ultimate Tree House

It's your tree house, too. Build it to last. Photo: iStock

I'm not saying building a tree house is the only reason you should have kids. That would be ridiculous. But building a tree house is definitely in the top five reasons to have children. I’d place it either right above or right below, “Having someone to mow the lawn.” 

The desire to build a tree house is also why you move to the suburbs—so you can have a patch of land and a couple of trees where you can throw up some 2x4s and hang a pirate flag. Constructing that bunker in the limbs is a hallmark of parenthood. It's up there with teaching your kid how to ride a bike and showing your daughter’s boyfriend your rifle collection. 

I’ve built two tree houses during my brief tenure as a parent (I have six-year-old twins) and I’ve learned a few things in the process. 

First of all, building a tree house is as competitive as road cycling. Your neighbors are judging you, so bring your A game. If Jones, around the corner, has a zipline off his tree house, you build a bungee jump. If Jones’ tree house is in the shape of a pirate ship, you build a space ship. Climbing walls are good, but ice climbing walls are better. It just takes a sprinkler system and some imagination. 

Second, remember that this is your tree house, too. Ostensibly, you’re building a play space for your kids, but it doesn’t take a shrink to figure out that you’re actually building the kickass tree house your parents never built for you. There’s no reason why the structure can’t suit both your children and yourself. Read: make room for a poker table and a kegerator in the floor plan. 

Third, hire a safety inspector. Chances are, your spouse will volunteer for this role, even if you don’t ask for his or her guidance. The safety inspector’s job is to ask really provocative questions like, “Why are you installing a sprinkler system over the climbing wall?” or “Does a six year old need a kegerator?”

To make sure you knock out this Rite of Passage the proper way, we’ve solicited the legitimate advice of Daryl McDonald, a professional tree-house builder with Nelson Treehouse and Supply and a key player on Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters

For the show, McDonald builds whimsical, multi-story tree-based mansions all over the world, but he says the principles of solid tree house construction are the same, whether you’re erecting a yoga retreat for a Microsoft exec or throwing up a DIY platform for your kid. “The key is to respect the trees. They’re living, dynamic organisms,” McDonald says. “They’re going to react to what you do and either accept it, or reject it.” 

Check out McDonald’s advice for building the perfect backyard tree house. 

1. Allow the Trees to Grow 

Trees grow and trees move in the wind. They’ll move together and apart and sideways—you have to allow for that movement. The trees will win in that struggle. If you’re creating a tree house that connects to more than one tree, bolt the tree house to the largest tree. Every other connection should use “floating brackets,” which move without being encumbered by the house. 

2. Limit the Number of Holes in the Tree

That limits the amount of pathogens or funguses that can make the tree sick. Keep the penetrations about 18 inches away from each other and never situated in a straight line, which can cause the holes to grow together into a single, damaging wound. 

3. Don’t Put Wood Against the Tree 

If you have wood against the tree, that connection will catch water and the beams will rot. Try to keep the beams about three to four inches away from the tree using a TAB (tree-house attachment bolt). 

4. Build for the Future 

Think about how long you’re going to use the tree house and add five years to it. Then build with that time frame in mind as you allocate space for growth. Depending on the scope of the project, make the house adult size. The kids will leave someday, and then you’ll still have it in the tree. 

5. Use Your Imagination. 

We build a lot of climbing walls on tree houses. We once even built a Japanese soaking tub in a tree house. Ziplines, custom slides, portholes in the floor are also fun. (For the latter, carve out a hole and put heavy duty glass in the floor so you can look straight at the ground.) Have fun with the materials too. Think: salvaged lumber, sticks, branches. If you remove limbs from the tree, keep them to use for railings. Allowing your imagination to run wild is what building a tree house is all about. 

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