Building the perfect treehouse

•How to keep it fun and safe


Heather Cunningham


Remember treehouses? The heady concoction of peace, independence and freedom that you experienced sitting among the branches on a breezy summer day, watching the world go by? When the block was your universe, owning the keys to a palace above it all was powerful stuff. Spending an afternoon in a treehouse fell in the same category as having a lemonade stand or catching fireflies after dark—all old-fashioned rites of passage.

Today more kids play on the slide, swings and plastic rock-climbing wall of their pre-made play set than a treehouse in the backyard. In many suburban areas there are just fewer trees. And even if trees are available, some families consider building one from scratch too labor intensive. My husband, Jon, bless his heart, is part of the deranged few who still think treehouses are worth the trouble.

“There is something about a treehouse that is almost magical,” he says. “It is like your own private kingdom.”

Growing up, Jon’s treehouse was nothing more than a platform in a large willow tree in his front yard that he assembled on his own when he was 10 or 11. Though a neighbor broke her arm falling out of it, his memories are nothing but sweet.

Even so, his treehouse was never finished to look like the picture he had in his head.

 “I tried,” says Jon, remembering his attempts to patch together lumber scraps. “But I also knew that I wanted it to be more.”

It was that memory that drove him to build our kids their own kingdom—right alongside the slide and swings that were their sole playing pleasure until our treehouse became king of the backyard. While I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, he proved me wrong. It wasn’t as hard as I anticipated (speaking as the one who provided only refreshments and encouragement). And the results have been more than worth the effort—making the experience one that gives my husband the rare opportunity to say “I told you so” with authority.

Here is how we did it:

Step 1: Choose a tree

We picked a large silver maple in the backyard, the tree Jon had his eye on the moment we moved into our house in Batavia six years ago. It was a “great treehouse tree,” he had remarked during our first walk-through.

And it was. Nestled behind the garage, the location was private enough to be a hideaway for our kids and discreet enough to keep the treehouse from offending the aesthetics of our neighbors.

Another plus was that while it could be seen from the kitchen window and our deck, and was big and strong—a safety must—the tree was not especially precious as far as trees go. “A weed tree,” said a friend when I shared my worries that a treehouse might damage it. So we decided the risk was worth taking, understanding the sacrifice wouldn’t be that great if our treehouse ended up being more than our tree could take.

The tree also met Jon’s final criterion—a shape that naturally left room for a treehouse to perch amidst its branches. Its main boughs fanned out in a way that left enough space for it to easily hold the base (floor) of our treehouse—something the other trees in our yard didn’t.

“The shape is perfect,” Jon says. “I wouldn’t be able to fit a floor in between the branches of the other trees.”

Experts say maple, oak, beech and coniferous trees are best for treehouses. And the bigger the tree the better, says Patrick Fulton, a 25-year-old from Scotland who gives free treehouse building advice on his Web site,

“A tree … with a diameter at least 16 inches at waist height indicates the tree is well established and can usually be assumed to have developed a sturdy root network,” Fulton says. “Watch out for yellowing foliage and get an arborist to take a look if you are at all unsure the tree is healthy.”

Step 2: Plan it out

Even though I checked out treehouse-building books from the library, visited numerous Web sites and pored over blueprint-style plans, in the end, all of the design work occurred inside my husband’s head.

“I wanted to make it as simple and as safe as possible,” says Jon. “I knew that it didn’t need to be elaborate to be fun.”

To stay true to his belief that simple was best, Jon decided a 4-foot-by-8-foot piece of plywood resting on top of 2-by-4 supports in the center of the main branches would act as a floor.

“I knew that if I could use that as a base and was able to secure it well, I could build a simple frame on top of it, and then add the walls and a roof,” Jon says.

My dad was visiting the weekend Jon decided to tackle the project, and together the two of them worked through the details. After all was said and done, the “simple” plan became a treehouse big enough to hold six children, complete with a shingled roof and peephole windows too small for anyone to fall out of. To my husband, it was treehouse nirvana—and more attractive than a playhouse held up by stiltlike supports rather than the tree itself, as most of my research recommended.

“I’ve seen treehouses built that way and they look great, but to me, a real treehouse is one that is supported by the tree. I had fond memories of the book Swiss Family Robinson, and that was what a treehouse was to me—a stand-alone structure,” Jon says.

Another Batavia resident, Peter Amrein, might beg to differ. He, too, built a treehouse for his family. Amrein used stilts to support it, a style experts say works best for urban families or those who don’t have a tree big enough to support a treehouse on its own.

Amrein built his treehouse so the tree comes up through the middle of the floor. It includes a first-floor deck accessible by stairs and low enough so young kids can play there without parents worrying about them falling and getting hurt. A ladder leads to the second floor—the actual treehouse and deck area.

“My wife, Gail, and I talked about a couple of ideas and decided on a shape,” Amrein says. “In the end, it wasn’t much different than building a shed with a deck.”

Whichever style works best for your family, experts suggest asking a few key questions before beginning to build: How big and how high do I want my treehouse to be? What type of entrance do I want (stairs, a rope ladder or something else)? Do I want to shingle the roof or add windows? Do I need approval from my local zoning board? To answer the last question, call your local village or city office. Step 3: Build your treehouse

When it is time to build, seek out experts at your local building center. The employee in charge of the construction desk at our local Menard’s helped Jon draw a plan based on the treehouse size we had in mind—5 feet high and 4-by-8-feet in diameter.

Jon left the store with five sheets of plywood, about 30 2-by-4 planks, 300 shingles and a bevy of 3-inch-long screws and 5-inch lag bolts.

“The person that I talked to helped me calculate almost perfectly how much material I would need,” Jon says. His counsel also helped Jon decide to use ¾-inch treated wood for the floor of the treehouse to prevent rotting and to cover the treated wood with another sheet of ½-inch untreated plywood to protect our kids from chemicals used in treated lumber.

The ½-inch untreated lumber was also used for the walls and roof (once they were framed with the 2-by-4 lumber). Jon also used additional 2-by-4 planks to support the treehouse by attaching them on an angle to both the tree and the underside of the floor.

Throughout the project, he used screws and supported those with the 5-inch lag bolts. As the last step, he shingled the roof, giving it extra protection and a finished look. While Jon was worrying about the safety of the kids who would one day play in the treehouse, I spent the day worrying about him. When he realized he would not be able to lift the treated plywood floor 11 feet into the crook of the tree alone—or even with the help of my dad—he cut it in two and slid the pieces up a ladder and into place.

That was much smarter than the way he shingled—hanging off the side of the roof with the nails held in his mouth and the shingles propped against a tree branch.

“I thought that the neighbors were probably looking out the window thinking, ‘That guy is crazy!’ ” Jon remembers.

I know I was. 

While experts say a treehouse can be built for as little as $150—or cost as much as $1,000 with a purchased plan—ours cost around $300. It took Jon about 20 hours over the course of two weeks to finish it. Two years later, we still haven’t stained it as we planned to—again, with Jon hanging off the roof, this time with a paint brush in hand—but the wood still has a nice golden patina anyway.

Step 4: Fine tune for safety

“My whole goal was to make it as safe as I possibly could,” says Jon. “I wanted to do all I could to make sure that no one would fall out accidentally.”

To achieve that final goal, he took several additional steps after the treehouse was built.

Once completed, he fine-tuned access by installing a removable ladder. If we aren’t around to monitor play, the ladder is put away.

“I chose to do it that way for security and safety reasons,” Jon says. “It keeps neighbor children out while we aren’t there to watch them, and our own children have to ask us to put the ladder in place before they go up.”

The round and rectangular windows Jon cut into the walls were placed at a child’s eye level so no one would be tempted to lean and topple out. Another of Jon’s safety ideas was a door that swings only in, not out.

But the biggest safety precaution we took was setting firm rules about treehouse play: No one under the age of 5 can venture up without an adult. No more than one person on the ladder at a time. The door stays closed once everyone is up. No horseplay when entering or exiting.

It seems to have worked. To date, no one has fallen out, and all the Cunningham children are enjoying the treehouse in good health.

Step 5: Make memories

Although my youngest son, Beau, now 3, is too little to remember it being built, Alec, 9, and Isabel, 6, remember the treehouse building experience as one of the more exciting outdoor adventures they witnessed. The treehouse impresses every child who comes over to play and is routinely filled with little girls in the middle of a craft project or third-grade boys intent on spying on the neighbors.

There are now bean bags and yard chairs up there on a regular basis and a shelf for all the miscellaneous treehouse toys. A squirrel even set up camp there early last spring and had to be kicked out.

For our brood, sitting among the branches on a breezy summer day, watching the world go by, has become an everyday summer pleasure. Jon’s hope, and one I share, is that it will be something they’ll remember—along with having a lemonade stand and catching fireflies after dark—as one of the more poignant rites of passage in the journey of childhood. 

Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.


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