The Builders

Principals, Treehouse Workshop

Feb 25, 2009
Outside Magazine

PETE NELSON: In high school, I found a big hardwood on the edge of a farmer's field, one of those big oaks that went up about 30 feet and branched out. It was the ideal place to build something substantial, and the image must have stayed with me.

JAKE JACOB: Growing up in rural New York, I climbed trees a lot, but we didn't really have treehouses.

PN: Jake was on the board of directors at the Timber Framers Guild, a nonprofit dedicated to the art of timber framing, so I contacted him about forming a treehouse association. He said, "I'd rather talk about starting a company." I was raising a family and needed to know there was a living to be made. But we stayed in contact, and in 1997 we launched the Treehouse Workshop Inc.

JJ: The way I thought of it is, If we can afford to put a little ad in The New Yorker, you know, one of those ads that says "Buy Irish cats," we might succeed. We didn't have a proper business plan, but here we are 12 years later, with over 100 structures in 32 states and nine countries.

PN: We get Christmas cards from people every year who just love their treehouses.

JJ: Our bread and butter are structures for adults, and they're more like an addition to your home—escape pods for baby boomers. At IslandWood, a 255-acre environmental learning center on Bainbridge Island, we built a treehouse that serves as a classroom. It needed to be 100 percent supported by this one tree, and it's got a very steep steeplejack-style roof, with 22-foot-long rafters. To minimize our impact, we had to use block-and-tackle systems, serious rigging in the trees.

PN: It took a small crew of carpenters over a month to build a treehouse on Cape Cod. That one mimicked the old shingle houses, right on the water, in a great oak tree.

JJ: Safety is paramount. You can't just start nailing two-by-sixes. If there's gonna be a conflict between the tree and a structure built in it, typically the tree wins. So we work with arborists and structural engineers to come up with connection systems, which are custom-made at machine shops.

PN: What draws many people in is the tree itself. It's nature grabbing us.

Filed To: Politics