Out on a limb

Wishes and childhood dreams flourish
as treehouses capture the imagination

By CJ Woodring

Treehouses have a storied history, first used by ancient Romans and then by South Pacific and Southeast Asian natives as sturdy homes. Beginning about the early and mid-20th century, they stood as symbols of independence throughout the United States, the dream of every red-blooded American kid.

Nestled in the boughs of a backyard tree, the fantastical aeries were the one place a kid (mostly boys at that time) could be alone with his thoughts, his friends and his dog. The crudely lettered sign on the door said it all: “No girls allowed!”

In later decades, girls claimed their own spaces, dedicated to tea parties, solitary reading and, as now, girlfriend getaways.

Those boys and girls are today’s adults. And youngsters who once yearned for a treehouse — but didn’t get one — are fulfilling that long-ago dream through their own children.

Morgantown resident Pat Dowty is among them.

Along with his brother, Chris Dowty, Pat is co-owner of Franklin-based Dowty Construction LLC. The company was founded in 2006, specializing in exterior additions such as docks, decks and boathouses. Dowty’s crews first built a treehouse in 2008, a basic playhouse supported by posts with a tree that served as centerpiece.

When it came to building a treehouse for his own family — he and his wife, Jackie, have seven children age newborn to 12 years — it was a different story.

“I wanted to build the best treehouse. This was about the time ‘Treehouse Masters’ came on,” he says, referring to the Animal Planet presentation, now in its fifth season. “I was about halfway done when I saw that program, and after that, I got a little bit more carried away with it.”

The 600-foot aerie’s loft has hosted several sleepovers for about a dozen girls, and construction will include a bathroom when completed, he says.

Although construction took about a year-and-a-half, Dowty admits he worked on it only as he was able. “It probably took longer than need be. It’s one of those things that if I’d had a crew on it, we’d have knocked it out in anywhere from six to eight weeks.”

The sky isn’t the limit

Early treehouses most often were crudely built, a father-son project composed of wood, nails, a limited budget and boundless imagination: It might be a pirate ship, fort, clubhouse or castle. Or simply a private space for overnight camping with friends.

Today’s treehouses have grown up, morphing into retreats, romantic hideaways and luxury homes of up to three stories. They are used for habitation, recreation, observation and work spaces, peaceful and private sanctuaries where owners can interact with nature or let their imaginations run wild, recapturing long ago childhood days.

The structures have also been used as money-making operations: Overnight resort getaways. Mountain retreats. Bed-and-breakfasts.

Along with Dowty Construction, an increasing number of builders specializes in constructing complex fantasies in the clouds, incorporating phones, Internet access, air conditioning, skylights, privacy shutters and creative staircases. Extra features can include a waterfall, rope swing, zip line and escape chute that replaces a staircase. To ensure they last longer than yesterday’s structures, wood, steel and fiber are structural components.

If you can dream it, a building contractor can turn it into reality.

Jackie Dowty says their treehouse has an attached slide, an attraction for the younger children not yet interested in the treehouse. But the older ones love it, she says. “We’ve had a birthday party, and Pat has joined them in sleepovers. They’ve also held Bible studies they would have done in the house with us, leading it themselves.”

Although movie nights are currently shown on television, she says her husband plans on eventually installing a projector.

What is the average treehouse owner looking for? Pat Dowty says they’re mostly looking for escape. “Several people who have seen my treehouse say they’d like to have one for a little getaway. At the end of the day, most hotel rooms aren’t even as big as my treehouse.”

The builder notes there are certain considerations to keep in mind, among them cost. “I think a lot of people just want something really nice, but they need to remember that they’re basically building a small house. Imagine the cost, and then it’s going to be almost double that because you’re building it up in the trees.

“The most important thing is to know what you want and what you want to spend. Builders can do whatever the customer wants. It’s just based on how expensive you want to get.”

As with all home-building projects, Dowty says, the key word is location: “You have to have a good spot. You could have three trees, but if you want it to look professional and don’t have the right trees, it’s not going to work.”

As for considering it a DIY project, “It depends on how far one’s talent goes and their prior experience,” Dowty says. “Especially if kids are going to be playing in it, you want it to be safe. Some people could get online and figure it out a lot on their own. I would suggest they have a pro do it. But that’s just me.”

Take it indoors

Central Indiana-based Jan Banister, an American Society of Interior Designers member, says she never had a treehouse: She had a fort, built into the bushes in the far corner of the yard. The longtime, full-service interior designer says treehouses foster independence, beginning in small steps, while also encouraging teamwork and imagination.

“I think a treehouse serves the same function for a child that we, as adults, are all looking for in that sunroom, window seat, small den or sewing nook. It’s a space to get away to that’s truly your own.

“Some projects I’ve seen and read about note that treehouses can be a child’s first design collaboration with an adult — planning, designing and building it together — while also fostering a sense of imagination and expressing what they want their dream space to be.”

Don’t despair if you lack yard space or even a tree. Retreats in the form of playhouses, tents, playground equipment and sheds have found their way indoors and into children’s bedrooms. Many companies offer a treehouse loft bed, while some manufacture outdoor furnishings solely for indoor use.

So how far does Dowty think the treehouse fad will rise? “There are a lot of TV programs about treehouses now. I just saw a new one. So it’s really starting to grow, and I’m kind of excited to see where it goes,” he says.

Although people have been asking him to rent his children’s playhouse, he says he’s not ready to do that yet. On the other hand, ownership does have one perk: “If my wife puts me in the doghouse, I can go to a really nice one,” he says with a laugh.

Before you build

» Have a site in mind, ensuring it’s adequate for construction and doesn’t infringe on neighbors’ privacy

» Build on at least two mature or nearly mature trees, depending on how large you want the structure and how many might occupy it at one time. The best trees are Douglas fir and red cedar. Others are oak, maple, chestnut, beech, pine and fruit trees; bypass poplar and silver birch.

» Consult with a company with prior treehouse-building experience.

» Consider safety, pest control, waterproofing, plumbing, power and a possible future expansion.

» Consider the building’s impact on the trees’ health and surrounding vegetation.

» Account for tree movement and growth.

» Get approval of homeowners association and proper building permits from city and/or county.