The tree house project brief
The brief for this project was to build a magical fairytale tree house for the clients. Since it was mainly for use by their children, the tree house should have a crooked, twisted, ‘bewitched’ feel, and include lots of fun features. The inspiration for the design came from some of the clients’ favourite childhood stories and fairytales; Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
(If you like you can skip the article and go straight to the video tour and captioned photo gallery.)
The client had visited us several years before at our outdoor workshop at Stanmer Organics, where we run our Woodcraft Workshops. Whilst there, he had seen many examples of Treegarden founder Chris Hore’s rustic woodcrafting skills. As Chris specifically loves to work with wood in its unaltered, natural form, the client was confident he had the skill and experience required to satisfy this challenging brief. And as qualified tree surgeons, we already possessed the harnessing equipment required to safely access the tree canopy. The challenge was on!
About the tree
The tree chosen for the project is a mature Ash with a very thick, short trunk. At the top of the trunk, six limbs grow out and upwards in an even spread. This is a perfect location to support the main platform of the tree house den. Plus, the middle of the canopy provides plenty of space to build into. The location of these limbs also offers a convenient pathway for a rustic staircase leading up through the tree. It was a perfect candidate for a tree house!
Safety & environmental considerations
Due to the current epidemic of Ash disease in Britain, we carried out a thorough inspection of the tree. It proved to be very strong and in extremely good health, and our design for the work was strongly focused on keeping it that way. During the planning phase, an inability to ensure the long, healthy life of the tree would have forced us to decline the project. The brief excited us, but an important part of the Treegarden ethos is to put nature before profit.
Human safety was also paramount. We needed to be certain that each tree limb was strong and healthy enough to continuously support the structure.
Finally, we were happy that our build would not risk human safety or negatively impact the tree’s future health. The project could commence and we now needed to source the materials.
Recycling materials for the tree house
At Treegarden, we seek to minimise the environmental impact of our work as much as possible. One method is to use recycled materials, and the timber for the tree house came from several sources.
We do lots of tree surgery around Sussex and, if the clients agree, we keep all the trees we remove. We took some choice cuts from our store to use for the tree house. A fantastic local sawmill, Willows Sawmill in Uckfield, also supplied us with a range of beautiful natural woods.
We also needed some pre-sawn timber boards for the tree house floor. We found this timber at The Woodstore, an excellent wood recycling center in Brighton.
With all the raw materials now acquired, it was time to start the build!
Tree house foundations
On each of the six tree limbs, we located a point of support for the bottom platform of the tree house. At each of these six points, we screwed a large steel pin. This is the most common means of supporting a structure within a tree. Nonetheless, we carried out extensive research beforehand to ensure this method would not cause long-term damage to the tree.
We fixed squared steel brackets underneath the steel pins, then bolted them at the bottom. This system still allows the tree limbs to grow, and to move independently when wind blows into the canopy. On a very windy day, movement of the limbs at the supporting points is a maximum of half a centimeter.
Next we constructed a lattice-style frame, using 2″ x 4″ pre-sawn timber joists. Sitting atop the limb pins, this framework forms the bottom platform of the main tree house den. We then secured boards across the base frame to create the floor for the tree house. Visitors to the tree house gain access to the den via a hatch in the floor, directly above the staircase. The hatch is not located inside the den, but comes up onto a veranda. From the veranda, access is gained to the den via a rustic, crooked door.
Crafting a staircase to reach the tree house veranda
A means of accessing the floor hatch was now required. We didn’t want to just make a ladder up to the platform as there is no magic in that! Instead we used the natural pathway from the trunk to create a rustic staircase. It winds up in a spiral, following the individual limb unions as they splay up and away from the trunk. Using larger diameter timber from a previous tree removal, slices were cut off, creating circular discs about three to four inches thick. They made perfect steps. Using different diameters, the steps fitted perfectly into the natural pathway formed by the growth of the tree. The steps finish about one meter directly below the hatch in the floor platform. A simple rope ladder completes the connection for access up through the hatch.
Most staircases have railings for support, and our rustic staircase is no different. We made a series of railings from branch off-cuts and secured them alongside the steps. They twist and bend in a spiral around the trunk, providing safety and support.
Creating the tree house den
We built the framework for the walls and ceiling of the den using beams and tree limbs. To give the exaggerated leaning, crooked appearance of a fairytale house, we cut the beams to different lengths.
We paneled the den walls with large oak fencing panels, recycled from Willows Sawmill. This wood had an aged, weathered appearance, perfect for our rustic, design. We boarded the roof with marine ply, then lined it with tarp to ensure waterproofing. We then hand-cut some rough wooden shingles and arranged them on the roof in a crooked, twisted fashion. The shingles looked perfect and really brought the magic of the tree house to life!
Windows are an important feature of any fairytale house, and our tree house has three. On either side of the den, in the eves of the roof, we constructed two triangle windows. We glazed both windows with transparent coloured perspex. Both windows are hinged and latched, and can be opened and closed.
In the den’s back wall we installed a third window, a round view-port reminiscent of a Hobbit house.
The door of the den is so crooked as to be almost triangle, yet it closes snugly. All of the hinges and fixtures on the doors and windows are hand-made from natural wood.
We then added crooked fencing around the veranda and the den perimeter for added safety, also using natural wood.
The den was now looking suitably bewitched from the outside, and all that remained was to decorate the interior. The client had some excess wallpaper they wanted to use for this, and it really finished things off!
Expanding the fun
To provide further adventure we erected a second, smaller platform in an adjacent limb. We secured this platform using the same method as for the floor of the den, and installed crooked wooden fences around it for safety. To bridge the gap between the two platforms we constructed a tunnel from heavy-duty cargo netting.
We then surrounded the entire accessible area of the tree with cargo netting as an added safety feature. We ran the cargo netting all the way into the upper reaches of the tree. It is now possible to safely climb right up into the tree canopy!
Adding a service tray
Was this enough fun yet? Possibly, but we still had the problem of how to get food and drinks from ground level up to the tree house. Climbing the rustic staircase with a torch is easy enough, but with a tray of drinks? Not so much. We solved this problem by making a large, rustic tray and mounting it with block and tackle pulleys. We then created a system of ropes and pulleys up in the tree canopy, and tied it off. Et voila! Never again would it be necessary to carry anything up the stairs manually!
The entrance at the bottom of the tree
The last main feature to be created was a suitable entrance with a door. It had to look magical, stirring the imagination before the adventure that would begin through it. For the door, we again took inspiration from Tolkien’s The Hobbit; The door is round, like the door to Bag End.
Tree house video tour
After completion, the client very kindly made a video tour of the tree house from a first person perspective. Watching it can give you an idea of how it feels to walk up into the tree house, as experienced by the clients and their children!
Tree house photo gallery
The photo gallery below shows the progress of the tree house project from start to finish. If you have any ideas for a tree house of your own, we can build tree houses to virtually any spec or style. Please contact us to discuss your requirements, we’d love to hear your ideas!