Q & A With Pete Nelson, Treehouse Expert:

What's the secret to building the treehouse of your dreams?
Pete: I guess the biggest secret is to get out and do it. Nike grabbed that a long time ago. Just do it. I think that applies nicely to treehouses because they're often something that are in your mind, fantasy world. Boy, wouldn't it be great if... Actually just pick up a hammer and get out there.
What's the average cost of the treehouses your company builds?
Pete: I'm going to say between $65K and $85K. Right in there. The standard treehouse that we build is in a backyard... Anywhere from a 150 to 250 sq.ft. retreat. And by retreat, I mean it has electricity; it's got lights that you can turn on to read or write. It does not have a bathroom. It does not have a kitchen. It may have a little composting toilet for convenience that you're just going to have up there 'cause I highly recommend that.

Basically, you're going to have a bed for napping or overnight guests. Typically a queen size bed. And it's going to have a reading chair and it's going to have a desk... We can go as low as $20K to $25K for a kids' treehouse and we've spent more than $800K on a fancy one.
Tell me a little bit about that $800K one...
Pete: That's a fully appointed live-in treehouse with extra fancy finishes. Not gold-plated plumbing fixtures, but nearly, you know? That one was 920 sq. ft. and another almost 600 of deck space. And very intricate carpentry which we love to do -- we're carpenters. We get a little bit out of control when we're asked to go crazy on things. We love that. I have to also say in the same breath that the treehouse may also lose the spirit of a real treehouse when you start to put bathtubs and convection ovens in there.
What's your best advice to people who are going to build their own treehouse?
Pete: Savor the planning of a treehouse. 'Cause it's really such a pleasure and a privilege even that you can find the time to do this... I guess I could be technical and say find out what the regs [regulations] are in your particular area. Some practical things like often you can build a 200 sq. ft. structure without a permit. You want to make sure you are not over your property line, your setbacks. Everybody has a setback; a rear yard; side yard. There could be some critical area issues like you're too close to the lake or the river. Things like this you want to be aware of.
Your #1 advice tidbit for newbies?
Pete: If you're building with neighbors nearby is PASS IT BY NEIGHBORS. Because every time there's a problem -- and there's plenty of 'em -- it's a neighbor that's upset. They feel that their privacy may be invaded. You're blocking a view or just kind of playing with the overall feel of their property -- there can be issues. So I would say absolutely be courteous and considerate of your neighbor and ask for permission. Because begging for forgiveness doesn't work.
What do you consider your Sistine Chapel?
Pete: There is a great church...modeled after the wood stave churches of Norway back at Longwood Gardens, a horticultural mecca back outside Philadelphia... It used to be Pierre Dupont's summer place and then in the '50s, he gave it over to the state. It's an extraordinary thousand acres of plantings, conservatories with palm trees, and orchid collections and bonsais that go for acres.

This treehouse we built there in '08 was probably our most ambitious... It's not a church... they commissioned us to build actually two treehouses there. One was higher up in the trees and more of a real treehouse and then the so-called chapel that we called the Canopy Cathedral. It's a fine-piece of woodworking, post and beam, extraordinary materials. It is up in the trees about 10 feet off the ground; it's supported by posts in the ground that disappear. Probably my proudest accomplishment as far as executing a pretty complex plan.
Do you have to find local businesses to provide your lumber or do you just actually bring what you can to job sites?
Pete: Combination. We're really proud of the materials we use. In the Pacific Northwest, we've got an abundance of beautiful Douglas Fir that's coming out of the old buildings making way for the new buildings in town, so we have a really remarkable resource. What we'll often do, we'll pack a Penske truck ... it's a bit of a footprint (we're trying to be careful about this) ... if we've got a job in D.C., we'll pack it to the gills and drive it across the country.

Sometimes we'll find excellent resources in the areas where we are. I'll try to source things locally and at the same time, I want to use stuff that I know. Like a really big part of what we use is Western Red Cedar, which is something I've got a great resource for in my neighborhood outside Seattle. That's great for exterior applications like siding and railings and decking. So I'll often bring that with me or ship it.
What do people need to know about nature before getting started?
Pete: When you're planning, know that trees are growing in dirt. They're getting fatter. They actually do grow and they're also moving independently -- and the forces of trees moving apart from each another in the wind are far greater than your bolts. So your platform needs to be flexible for wind and growth. A three-quarter inch bolt that you pick up and Home Depot or Loews isn't gonna do it anymore... Consider your true weight of a treehouse. A fully developed treehouse, adult scale, is going to weigh anywhere from 3,500 lbs. to 35,000 lbs. depending on how ambitious you are. And then in the northeast, add in a four-inch snowstorm and 50 people that suddenly want to party up there... Debt load suddenly become 50,000 lbs.
How has the environmental movement affected what you do?
Pete: They've so embraced it. I'm really thrilled. The very essence of treehouses is of course scrounging and recycling and reusing and that's been something that I've done since I was 8 or 9 years old. It's a lot of fun to go in and grab the storm windows that aren't being used anymore in the old house I grew up in. (I'm just pulling something out of my experience). You've got all this great material around. If the environmental movement is about reusing and repurposing, then this is just perfect.

Environmentally, we're leaving all the trees. And it's critical of course to keep your trees healthy and alive. The thrilling part of what I've noticed is that the trees are co-conspirators in this whole movement. They're loving it... When we put a treehouse in the trees, the bolts we use are a pretty good size -- three-inches in diameter -- there are no small bolts. They're significant and they hold a lot of weight. The trees are growing reaction wood around that penetration -- that wound that we put in the tree. And so, in a funny way, what I'm suggesting is that the tree is becoming more vital, more enthusiastic about life -- just like we are when we're in them.
270-180-pete-nelson-headshot Pete Nelson is the star of 'Treehouse Masters' on Animal Planet and co-founder of Treehouse Workshop, Inc., based in Seattle. He's also the author of five books, including New Treehouses of the World, published in 2009. When not designing treehouses or traveling the world in search of new ones, he hangs at home with his family in Fall City, Wash.

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