Luxury hideaways rise to haute new heights
A new generation of modern tree dwellings is enabling architecture to meet high adventure.
You enter the Hamptons house through two magnificent sliding doors salvaged from an 1880s barn. The built-in rustic-chic furniture is custom-crafted. Secret wall panels open onto a back deck with drop-dead views.
On movie nights, the owner, a private-equity CEO, touches a button and a 60-by-40-inch plasma screen glides down from a discreet ceiling console. It sounds like any other fabulous East End trophy house, and it is. Except that this one sits 30 feet off the ground in the branches of four ancient Japanese cedars.
"People think 'treehouse' and imagine creaky plywood forts where kids sneak away to have their first kiss,” says Roderick Romero, the Manhattan designer who built that Long Island, N.Y., aerie in 2009. "But it's moved so far beyond that.”
Above and beyond, actually. A new generation of luxury treehouses is elevating the dream, with designs and prices no sidewalk lemonade stand could finance.
These include designs by Baumraum, a German company that specializes in tree pods. Using a technique called "arboriculture,” the company aims to integrate each design into the surroundings. Pete Nelson and Jake Jacob of Seattle firm TreeHouse Workshop have built treehouses worldwide, including the Victorian tree manse near Treehouse Point, Nelson's B&B retreat in Fall City, Wash.
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Minneapolis woodworker Dustin Feider of 02 Treehouse builds his sustainable treehouses from materials that don't inhibit surrounding growth. Past designs have included ziplines and translucent plastic panels.
"With the modern tree dwellings we're building, it's architecture meets high adventure,” says Andreas Wenning, of Baumraum. His firm's streamlined steel-and-wood-framed pods are more Bauhaus than clubhouse. One atop several larch trees in Kehl, Germany, resembles a futuristic barrel on giant toothpicks alongside a floating raft. "These are fantasy cocoons,” limited only by a client's imagination and budget, said Wenning, whose projects start at $30,000. "One client wanted to hit golf balls from his tree terrace, so he had us design a tee platform with removable railings.”
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In Seattle, über-carpenter Nelson has been advancing arboreal design for a decade with popular coffee-table books like 2009's "New Treehouses of the World" and as a chief branch swinger at TreeHouse Workshop. Among the structures built by Nelson and his team is a sprawling tree cathedral in the style of a Norwegian stave church at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.
Some people even allow children inside their outposts. "Our 7- and 10-year-olds were our inspiration, although they probably would have been happy with two-by-fours,” says Mark Levin, a treehouse aficionado in Los Angeles. The treehouse the kids got was quite different.
After Levin and his wife, Jennifer Flackett, co-directed the 2008 family film "Nim's Island," they toyed with relocating the movie's elaborate treehouse from the soundstage in Australia to their backyard near Beverly Hills, Calif. Instead, Levin Googled “modern tree house” and discovered the geodesic tree domes designed by Feider.
"I didn't want to be one of these guys who talked about having a treehouse but never did it,” says Levin, who now has two Feider tree structures — one spherical, the other teardrop-shaped — connected by a hanging bridge.
Building at such a high level is not without challenges. Bees, raccoons, falls and wind sway are all part of the job. So are swings in public perception. After Romero built a crow's nest tower last fall in a 160-year-old fig tree in Santa Monica, Calif., neighbors worried they were being spied on. "I had to add an elaborate thicket of sticks to one side,” Romero says. "The memory of childhood trouble-making dies hard for some people.”
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But what dies even harder is the childlike allure for ascending trees.
"Dangling 60 feet in the air, people instantly revert to being excited 2-year-olds,” says designer Todd Oldham, who built a two-story treehouse, complete with a faux-bark television and faux-branch-handled kitchen cabinets, at his weekend home in eastern Pennsylvania. "Either that, or they cling to the railings in abject horror.”
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A brave few have taken to the branches full time. In the Sydney suburb of Church Point, Utz-Sanby Architects built a glass and steel three-bedroom house on a steep slope of eucalyptus trees. The house, supported by concrete piers, was designed "to levitate above the forest floor,” says architect Kristin Utz.
Then again, that's what all treehouses intend. As Wenning of Baumraum put it, "In a treehouse, you're not on the ground and you're not flying. It's somewhere in the middle — like floating between earth and heaven.”