Treetop Living: Innovative Treehouse Designs

No longer just for Junior, today’s tree houses provide parents with a retreat for when the going gets tough – or when they just need some time out

My first self-build project was situated in an idyllic orchard, and sympathetically designed, constructed from sustainable, reclaimed wood. Admittedly, it wasn’t well insulated and it leaked, but it was a tree house, after all – and I was only nine. While we probably all have childhood memories of climbing trees and building forts, increasingly tree houses are no longer just for kids, and these days they are more than just a few planks of wood lashed to a tree. Built from sustainably sourced woods, with floor-to-ceiling windows and footprints of hundreds of square feet, today’s treetop retreats are luxurious, unique eco escapes with innovative designs… and amazing views.

Hanging out in a tree house is such a romantic notion. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love them
Henry Durham, Owner, High Life Treehouses

Costing as much as $400,000, these fairy-tale hideaways have become the latest must-have in 21st-century bespoke outdoor living. According to Simon Payne, director of British company Blue Forest, purveyor of astonishingly ambitious tree house designs, stressed-out executives who want to escape are now “retiring” to a forest getaway: “Many of our clients are wealthy CEOs and celebrities who want to make the most of their secluded gardens.” And what could be more balancing and relaxing than being at one with nature, especially in bespoke, stylish, and leafy surroundings.

Fibonacci Tree House by Blue Forest. Photograph: Blue Forest
Fibonacci Tree House by Blue Forest. Photograph: Blue Forest

Award-winning Blue Forest has created everything from fantasy play areas (all turreted castles with rope bridges and slides) to romantic bolt-holes and unique offices, not to mention exclusive eco lodges in Malawi, luxury treetop hideouts on Lake Garda, jungle bridges in the Maldives, and even inspiring eco classrooms.

“When we started our business nine years ago, our work focused on tree houses designed for children to play in. Now it’s big kids who want a retreat and a place to ‘play’,” Payne explains.

That doesn’t mean that modern tree houses are Swiss Family Robinson-style affairs. Payne’s designs can be surprisingly high-tech. One client in Greece requested that their tree house had the latest in fingerprint recognition and a bespoke video security system, as well as a kitchen, wet room, and large living space with plasma screens and games consoles.

In Britain, we find that our tree houses add saleability to people’s homes because of the wow factor they create
Simon Payne, Director, Blue Forest

Known as the “tree whisperer”, Seattle-based architect Pete Nelson, who runs Nelson Treehouse and Supply, has designed around 200 unique tree houses in nine different countries over the past 15 years. “Often my clients have looked at a coffee-table book about tree houses and say, ‘I want one of those,’ or they are architecture buffs.” Creations include an 800-square-foot escape in Texas, complete with a full bath and flat-screen TV, and a $365,000 tree house in Yelm, Washington.

“Business has never been better,” confirms Henry Durham, the owner of London-based design company High Life Treehouses. And according to Durham, it is the top end of the market that is the busiest. “We have definitely noticed builds getting bigger, more ambitious, and more luxurious. Wi-Fi, plug sockets, and mood lighting now come as standard, and all our structures are insulated and come with internal and external cladding, as well as glass windows to keep in the heat,” he says.

Cleverley Tree House by High Life Treehouses' retreats. The company recently integrated fingerprint-recognition door locks into a design.
Cleverley Tree House by High Life Treehouses' retreats. The company recently integrated fingerprint-recognition door locks into a design.
Interior of Cleverley Tree House
Interior of Cleverley Tree House
“We recently fitted a fingerprint-recognition door lock to a tree house – it was actually the child’s idea. And it is a brilliant concept as it taps back into that childhood memory of having a tree house hideaway and a secret gang,” Durham continues. “And you can register as many fingerprints as you want, so that the whole gang has access.”

An integral part of planning and designing a tree house is the tree that it is built in or around. Nelson prefers Douglas fir and red cedar trees, due to their strength and beauty. “The energy a tree emits is undeniable. It’s the sort of energy that makes the hairs on your neck stand up a little bit,” he says.

For Payne, some projects are so vast that they are built on stilts that sit up within the tree canopy, so that they can be built in or among any type of tree, and others are built around several trees that are then linked by bridges. Blue Forest’s designs are usually made from sustainable pine or spruce, often sourced from North America, and finished with hard-wearing woods such as cedar and oak. Some of Payne’s designs even have thatched roofs.

While tree house designs are becoming ever more grand and high-tech, what ultimately appeals to most people is their sense of adventure and fun. As Durham says: “Everybody loves tree houses. They remind them of being a kid and hark back to long summer holidays. Hanging out in a tree house is such a romantic notion – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t love them.” Durham believes customers are also very keen on the natural aspect: being at one with nature and creating a sustainable building. 

Photograph: Adam Crawley
Photograph: Adam Crawley

That’s a trend that Chip Williams of Long & Foster Real Estate/Christie’s International Real Estate has noticed in Pennsylvania. “Here in Bucks County, we have become a refuge for the weary Manhattan executive, Wall Street trader, and professionals from all walks of life seeking a place of tranquil beauty to soothe their souls,” he says.

“A bespoke garden building allows one to maximize their enjoyment of the lush grounds and rolling hillsides, while also having all the technical necessities at their disposal. Many of our ‘weekend’ residents find they can accomplish a great deal and run their empires while in their pajamas in the midst of their scenic surroundings.”

Another Blue Forest-designed tree house, whose portfolio includes "castles" with rope bridges and eco classrooms.

Photograph: Blue Forest

“Structures are increasingly family-oriented so everyone can have the fun they want,” says Payne. “One recent client of mine had retired and wanted a peaceful space for himself to watch TV and relax in nature with a glass of whisky. Then he had an adventure playground attached so he could keep the grandchildren busy when they came around to visit.”

“Tree houses are directly connected with nature,” says Nelson. “The way people respond to them is remarkable. They bring together families, friends, and even entire communities.”

While you can build a simple structure for as little at $15,000, most modern tree houses start at around $50,000, making them a somewhat exclusive must-have. But do they have any value beyond the joy that they give to their owners, or are they the equivalent of the English Victorian folly – an entirely frivolous garden structure, built to enhance your view? And does it really matter, anyway?

“In Britain we find that our tree houses add saleability to people’s homes because of the wow factor they create,” says Payne. “Overseas, it tends to be more about creating a space that clients can retreat to.”

Perhaps Nelson sums it up best when he says, “Tree houses are priceless – especially the simple one that dad builds in the backyard.”  

Illustration by Daniel Clarke
Illustration by Daniel Clarke