A tree house will delight your children, and building one is a perfect Easter family project. We show you how in five easy steps
Nick Weston Published: 17 April 2011 – Sunday Times
Tree houses are magical places. Few other things can conjure up the dreams and desires of adventure and escape within the minds of children — and of adults, too. Almost everyone has a tree-house story from their youth: either they had one, wanted one or played in a friend’s. When I was eight, a few planks crudely nailed to the fork in an oak tree did it for me. Two years ago, yearning for a change in my life from working in London, I went back to those boyhood dreams of life among the leaves and, with the help of a slightly broader range of tools than the hammer and the nail, I built a full-size tree house from recycled and natural materials in West Sussex, and lived in it for six months.
Recently, tree houses have become increasingly popular, prompting various companies to pop up, offering high-spec arboreal dwellings (all very well if you can afford the £10,000 price tag for a kid’s high-rise playpen; see panel, far right). For me, that’s not what tree houses are about: they are the very pinnacle of do-it-yourself, an exercise for the amateur, aspiring builder to flex his (or maybe her) construction capabilities. Designed to use up unwanted scraps of wood, they exist to fuel the imagination. And above all else, anyone is qualified to put one up (providing you know which end of a nail to hit).
Building a tree house is every parent’s duty and should be accepted as a challenge, rather than a chore Building a tree house is every parent’s duty and should be accepted as a challenge, rather than a chore. With spring in full flow and the schools off, it is a great way for the family to all work together: dad wields the drill and takes the position of foreman, children are the architects and help out where possible, while mum keeps everyone fed and watered, and is in charge of interior design. (Apologies for those sexist stereotypes.) A fun family project with only one requirement: a tree.
Even so, James Gaydon, 34, a manager from Haywards Heath, West Sussex, was apprehensive about building one for his daughter Molly, 6, and son, Reuben, 4.
“I’m terrible at DIY, and I’m not sure if we have a tree that’s suitable,” he told me when I offered my services as a tree-house consultant. “We have a willow and a fir, but one’s a bit wonky, and the other is by the fence.” While James clearly didn’t fancy himself as a handyman, his wife, Gayle, 36, had more confidence in his ability: “Well, you didn’t do a bad job of the shed…”
Gayle was right; the fact the two of us knocked up the tree house in two days (in the wonky willow) is testament to her husband’s abilities. And the whole thing cost just £160. It was a bit of a rush, though; ideally you should take three to four days, which should be easy, given all the bank holidays coming up.
Before reaching for your saw, bear in mind tree houses may be subject to planning rules. These vary, but as a general rule, a tree house must be less than 4 metres high to the pitch of the roof, if more than 2 metres from the boundary (and less than 2.5 metres high, if it’s within 2 metres). If it has a flat roof, it can’t be more than 3 metres. It should also be at least 5 metres from a dwelling and have no more than 30 square metres of floor space. If in doubt, check with your local council.
When it comes to materials, I’m a great believer in “treecycling”; that is, using recycled and natural wood. This not only keeps down costs, but adds character. And it’s a good test of your magpie instincts.
My nearest timber yard, Mid Sussex Timber, is happy for me to take offcuts for a few pounds. Skips, new developments and friends’ garages are another source (make sure you have permission, of course). Natural wood can be used as soon as it’s cut, and seasoned in situ. Hazel, ash, chestnut and birch are excellent for their natural straightness, and oak and hornbeam for their curves and contortions.
Some materials will need to be bought: make the foundations or frame for the platform from treated two-by-four or two-by-six timber. For roofing, use shingles, featheredge fencing or corrugated iron.
The tools needed are fairly basic: a power drill, a jigsaw or skill saw, handsaw, hammer, ratchet, spirit level, tape measure and set square for marking. For fixings, a bag of nails and a variety of screw sizes are handy, though screws of 40mm and 80mm will meet most needs.
Large coach screws are best for attaching the platform frame to the tree; galvanised ones will minimise the damage to a tree (they don’t rust, and form a tight seal that reduces the risk of infection).
A few days building a treetop escape with the family will provide lasting memories. There is nothing better than sitting back and admiring your hard work, knowing that you have created a space for your children to enjoy for years: somewhere for them to play, to do their homework or to escape their parents — or maybe for you to escape them.
If you are lacking in DIY skills, there are plenty of companies that will construct your tree house for you. The buildings range from children’s play houses to fully insulated grown-ups’ hideaways, complete with plumbing and electricity. Here’s a selection.
- Blue Forest, East Sussex. From £15,000 01892 750090, blueforest.com
- Cheeky Monkey Treehouses, West Sussex.From £7,500 01403 732452, cheekymonkeytreehouses.com
- The Great Escape Treehouse Company, East Sussex. From £3,000 07928 573773, greatescapetreehousecompany.co.uk
- Treehouse Company, Northamptonshire. From £4,500 01536 443988, treehousecompany.com
- Treehouse Life, Surrey. From £5,000 07956 225500, treehouselife.co.uk
The Treehouse Diaries by Nick Weston is out now (Collins & Brown £16.99);huntergathercook.com
How it unfolded. My account! My blog!
“James, out of interest have you got any tree’s in your garden?”
Twitter is used for all sorts of things but a request for tree information from someone was a little… well odd. Why would anyone be ‘interested’ in my humble trees? What I then realised was that the ‘tweet’ had come from Nick Weston – a guy that had made his name by living in a tree house in a Sussex woodland for 6 months. Now when I say tree house don’t go thinking Wendy house 3 ft off the ground or flat pack shed type structure… no, it was somewhat more substantial and original than that.
Nick wrote a book called ‘Tree House Diaries’ and it is a great guide to living with the resources around you and using knowledge and skills to get by.
Now for those of you that regularly read my blog posts (I appreciate that may just be me… and actually I am no frequent visitor) you’ll know I have mentioned Nick 2 or 3 times in the past in relation to his tree house adventure and also his knowledge and willingness to eat food that others wouldn’t consider (fancy a bit of Pike?) – my personal interest lies in picking up tips for eating the meatier wild food varieties. So it was a great surprise to hear from him, although it still didn’t answer the question of why he was interested in my tree.
I responded via Twitter and after a couple of emails I understood that he had set himself a challenge and needed a) a tree and b) a family that like to get involved in a project. Nick planned to build a children’s tree house from scratch in 2 days using at least 60% – 70% recycled materials (only buying wood for the platform base and some for the roof). Nick sounded positive about it but in 2 days? Really? He then explained that the Sunday Times wanted to cover the build for an a feature in the ‘Homes’ section in the following edition on 17th April. Nice, nothing like getting your picture in the paper eh!
Saturday morning came and Nick arrived with the content of a small copse poking out of his car which turned out to be the main upright and roof supports that he had cut himself that morning from woodland, mostly birch and hazel. Once the recycled bits of wood (skirting board, a woodflooring plank, some off cuts from someones new porchway etc) had also laid out I was pleased to discover that Nick believed that every good project should never be started without a cup of tea. As we drank there was a fair bit of pointing at branches, head nodding and statements from Nick like “yeah we can do that”.
Nick had only seen a photo of the tree before but had sketched a rough design which was a cute small version of his tree house. I knew Molly and Reuben would love it.
Work began and with only a rare glance at the clipboard design the sawing and hammering began. I soon realised that my skills were best suited to holding bits of wood, and fetching drill bits however Nick pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and get busy. I made the door and after that grew in confidence and happily put out some of the exterior cladding and made little adjustments here and there.
The tree house is accessed through a little trap door ensuring that the kids felt it was very much their tree house and gave them a sense of ownership. What they don’t fully realise is I have the agility of a mountain goat so if I needed to I could get in to stop any naughty behaviour or give assistance if needed.
Molly taking it easy…
Reuben getting involved…
Day two arrived and a cheery Nick arrived and once the tea mugs were empty more hammering and drilling started with surprising pace. The platform that we built the day before was soon fitted with a frame for the roof and then the sides and windows starting taking shape.
Both Molly and Reuben really enjoyed doing a bit of drilling although learning of this tool that ‘made’ things then meant I had repeated requests to drill and screw off-cuts together to make small wooden objects that only they could see any point in. Two small lengths with a screw drilled in the middle soon made a pair of scissors (of a sort) and a couple of other pieces soon made a Reuben what can only be described as a weapon… ummm…. that was soon confiscated.
It was a great opportunity to work as a family (with Nick in command) to construct this awesome tree house. The weather was great and it was amazing what we were achieving, never before had I considered taking on such a task but I began to realise that actually it wasn’t THAT hard! I smiled when I noticed that Molly had written her name on the trap door – she’s a proper little ‘tagger’ but she doesn’t put her name to just anything so I knew she was pleased with our work and wanted to lay claim to it.
The day passed quickly and although we were under pressure toward the end, the tree house looked great. Gayle got busy dressing the tree house with a floor rug, blankets, bunting, paper chains that she had been making with the kids that day, some flower pots and of course the Gayle trade mark – fairy lights. Beautiful. The very final touch was putting the name plaque on it… “Star Lodge”.
Stuart the photographer from The Times arrived and took some photos of us all in staged poses which was fun although Gayle was keen that I didn’t wear my ‘horrible bull t-shirt’, but too late, no time for a costume change now.
Interested to see how the article looks and read Nick perspective on how the project went.
As the evening sunlight began to fade Stuart and Nick packed up and after some high-fives and words of thanks they both left. Gayle got ice-lollies from the freezer and we all sat in the tree house licking our lollies with fairy lights lighting up our grinning faces. I was exhausted and very happy to see the delight that Molly and Rubes had sitting in their new den (that didnt involve 2 chairs and a blanket!).
Plans for their first sleep over are in place and once a couple of finishing touches are made… although originally it was designed just for the kids it will fit us all in there… I dont know who is more excited, the little ‘uns or me!
If you want to employ Nicks services in making something bespoke for you, give him a shout and I am sure he’ll be happy to talk it through with you.
Have a look at the ‘Products’ tab on his website www.huntergathercook.com