Perhaps it’s time we take a lesson from the younger population: a perch in the trees is the place to be. This notion seems to be the case especially for us on the west side of the Evergreen State, rich with thick forests of mighty cedar and Douglas fir—giant, graceful beings capable of supporting our weight. But in the 21st century there’s no need to settle for a simple platform of boards and nails.
Luxury treehouses are on the rise nationwide. A popular Animal Planet reality show called Treehouse Masters features a firm of builders out of Fall City, Washington, bringing attention to the burgeoning subcommunity of carpenters in the Pacific Northwest who are bringing a sustainable and ecological spin on our dwellings.
Two of the most prominent luxury treehouse craftsmen in the Pacific Northwest, David Geisen of Seattle and Michael Murphy of Tacoma, are excited to support their neighbors in returning to the canopy. Both men fondly recall childhood years spent clambering up trees. As they developed and honed carpentry skills in early adulthood, this connection to trees became even more intimate and inspired a desire to share that youthful, creative experience with others.
“My goal in building a treehouse is to change the way people relate to the earth and to trees,” Murphy says. “To reignite the spark of imagination and excitement that comes from looking at and climbing into a tree.”
Why Build Up?
A luxury treehouse can serve a wide range of needs. A children’s playhouse is always an option, but sometimes clients need a retreat space up high for meditation or yoga, to use as an office or studio space, to provide a unique guesthouse experience, or even as a permanent residence. Treehouse Masters has even constructed a treehouse recording studio for the world-renowned Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville.
And nestled in a handcrafted, cedar-scented space between gently swaying boughs, no better place for escape could exist. As Geisen says, “For those with dreams and the means, treehouses will always be a refuge and inspiration.”
All extravagance aside, treehouses can also be a practical solution for properties where permits for a foundation or permanent residence are difficult to obtain. Murphy anticipates that the future will see woody abodes as a solution for “sensitive environments” such as near wetlands and other changeable bodies of water like rivers, oceans and lakes.
Dream, Dream, Dream
Prior to the builders' initial meeting, Geisen designed and built a luxury tree house all on his own over the course of three years. Completed in 2013 and dubbed "The Sanctuary," it sits amid a grove of five Douglas fir trees and provides its owners with a cozy and original structure that serves as a guesthouse and kids' playhouse. The main floor ushers guests inside from the covered porch to a room of leather reading chairs and a large table for games and snacks, while just upstairs sits an intimate loft furnished with elegant floor cushions and topped off with a bonus peekaboo loft above.
Upon joining forces in 2014, Geisen and Murphy have streamlined their process and collaborated on multiple large-scale tree houses, each of which has a design and flair incomparable with the last. Their first joint venture in spring 2014, The Falls Treehouse, is burrowed deep in the woods of the Snoqualmie Valley and offers an adjunct relaxation and music jamming space with a loft having an expansive, rounded deck from which to enjoy the forest.
Their latest production, The Celeste Treehouse, is a full-on primary residence on an island in Puget Sound, situated in a grove of cedar trees and connected by a creative yet accessible ramp system. Built in the summer and fall of 2014 and designed by Geisen, this arboreal home is technically made up of two treehouses, one of which has a main living area with a kitchen, sitting area, office space and bathroom, while the other overlooks a small pond and holds room for a large bed and closet. The timber used to craft Celeste tells a special story too. Michael recalls it was all taken from “old growth fir . . . over 600 years old and felled so that Boeing could use [it] as floats for warehouses put on Lake Washington to create more building space during World War II.”
Although each of Geisen and Murphy’s canopy creations is unique, all incorporate various attributes the two find indispensable. Geisen personally favors “elements of discovery built in—things that cannot be seen all at once,” like the surprise loft in The Sanctuary, as well as “interesting entrances . . . that highlight the experience of climbing up into the trees.”
Murphy loves to incorporate what he refers to as “raw wood,” which means using stain rather than paint, and sourcing “wood milled from trees [he’s] taken down or by other tree care workers in the area.” Along this vein, the two try their best to incorporate as many materials from the site itself as possible, even sanding and using felled branches for railings and door handles.
Most builds also include custom stained-glass windows from local artist Barry Patterson; while others have included fire poles, custom hammocks, cedar monkey bars, zip lines, custom steel brackets and design pieces, custom and reclaimed doors, swings and more.
Usually most any tree has the potential to support a treehouse, but if you’re looking for longevity, Murphy says, “slow-growing, strong woods like oak can’t be beat. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are regularly building in cedar, fir, maple and redwood. All great trees.” For the structure itself, cedar and fir are the go-to ingredients, while elegant hardwoods (imported, reclaimed or locally sourced) are used sparingly as a highlight for desks, countertops or other decorative opportunities.
While some may shudder at the thought of nailing into a beloved tree, Murphy assures dendrophiles “there are many options of large, engineered bolts that allow us to put tens of thousands of pounds of material into trees while only making a few holes that are quickly filled by the bolts.” This doesn’t necessarily mean these treehouses lengthen the life of its host necessarily, but it does usually mean the client “is invested in the tree, that [the tree] will be more likely to have regular check-ups by an arborist . . . and it will be less likely to be taken down” for whatever reason.
As for permits, they are usually not required for construction of a treehouse because it is considered an impermanent structure. Furthermore, in Washington State a permit is required only for structures greater than 200 square feet, so Geisen and Murphy often get around this by building small structures. Despite these hazy regulations, in all builds they follow the rules just in case. “We try to build to the highest codes to ensure that if the issue of permitting comes up after construction has begun, the building will pass code.”
Pricing for a tree structure can vary immensely based on style, size and design elements, but a general range provided by Geisen and Murphy estimates the cost at $25,000 to $250,000 or more.
Be One with the Tree
At the end of it all, regardless of luxury, tree dwellings exist not only because of a deep appreciation for the generous cedars and firs holding us in their boughs but also as a nod to our progenitors who arguably came from the trees. As Geisen says, “Dr. Donald Perry, a rainforest canopy researcher, disagrees with Darwin that humanity was born and evolved on the ground . . . he just might be correct in saying that we all have an ‘arboreal gene’ buried within us.”
Questions to Consider
• What do you want out of your treehouse?
• Is this for kids or adults?
• What can the tree(s) safely support?
• What is your budget?
• What can you incorporate from your landscape?