'Treehouse Masters' explores creations around country

10:09 AM, Jan 21, 2014   |    comments
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KUSA - Practically every child dreams of having a treehouse. Of course, not many kids end up making it their life's work - except for maybe Pete Nelson.

The 50-year-old former homebuilder and founder of Washington state-based Nelson Treehouse and Supply has built hundreds of these arboreal retreats in 26 states and nine countries over the past 15 years.

On Discovery Channel's Animal Planet (back for a second season) Treehouse Masters will show you why many who know Nelson call him "the tree whisperer." The series chronicles Nelson and his team of craftsmen scaling oaks, olives and hackberry trees across the country as they transform clients' visions into forest hideaways.

From the 800-square foot "Twenty-ton Texas Treehouse" with a full bath and flat screen TV near Waco, to the "Honeymoon Suite" 250-feet off the ground at Nelson's own Treehouse Point B & B in Issaquah, Wash., the series captures most every taste and sensibility.

Consider "The Spirit House Retreat" in Rhinebeck, N.Y., built as a writing/meditation space for a first-time novelist. (Preparation involved consulting an urban shaman to cleanse the bad 'juju.'")

But no matter what style is used, Nelson says, "the way people respond is remarkable. Treehouses bring together families, friends and even entire communities"

For Amber Maddox (daughter of the couple who commissioned the Texas treehouse), "It's a special way to connect adults with kids."

In fact, Nelson helped shift interest in treehouses to grown-ups with his 1994 coffee table book, Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb, filled with some wildly elaborate sylvan cribs.

Nelson found his calling at age 5 after his father built him a treehouse in the tiny backyard of his Ridgewood, N.J., house. What hooked him? "First, it was my own place and second, I have two sisters that seemed to get most of the attention so suddenly I had Dad all to myself and a really cool building project to boot!"

Add to that Nelson's intrinsic love of wood and he was off and running. There were detours, like getting an economics degree and building and designing residences for 16 years in Seattle - but Nelson never abandoned his fascination with viewing the world from 10 feet off the ground. And he owes much of his success to his family.

"My wife Judy has been supportive of this since 1987, when I went: "Aha! I want to build treehouses. I want to be the treehouse guy and she goes, 'OK.'"

Now the enterprise includes his 21-year-old son Charlie, "a great carpenter" and 23-year-old daughter Emily "a critical sounding board for the business."

Which despite a two-year-dip during the economic downturn, is thriving. A basic treehouse will set you back about $80,000. Nelson says the Texas one cost over $200K, and admits it's not typical or his thing. "I can just meld right into their world and put a flatscreen TV in but would I do that for myself? Never." Like the majority of his customers, Nelson considers these structures places to unplug and reconnect with nature.

Moreover, Nelson considers the trees "a critical partner in the design process. They drive everything, so I think my greatest strength in this fun little biz is interpreting what they're giving us." Nelson will spend a good couple of hours taking measurements and pondering which trees will work best for a given project.

Still, there are challenges. In addition to finding the perfect spot, there's the issue of building codes. Patrick Fulton who authors The Treehouse Guide, an online resource for all treehouse related issues, says there is no official category for a treehouse in most local building codes. "Some areas don't consider treehouses to be a building at all, whereas others specifically mention them with maximum-height and floor-size limits."

The B'Ville treehouse in Portland, Ore., is one of the many built by Pete Nelson.

"Treehouses are priceless, especially the simple one that dad builds in the backyard," Nelson says. "Through great resources like Craigslist it can be very cheap to acquire materials -- everything from wood to windows." Nelson says buying the necessary materials at a box store should cost up to $4,000-$5,000, with specialty hardware adding another $1,200-$1,300. And then there's the actual labor. "Dad will spend approximately 10 times longer than he may think to build it. One weekend becomes 10. Pretty much all summer in the Pacific Northwest."

Nelson says anyone doing this on their own should check with their local building department and pay attention to the basics like setbacks. Nelson can't build everyone's hideaway, which is why he encourages people (in addition to training them in workshops) to build their own.

"Some people might get a little psyched out when they see the pictures of what we do. But make it happen. Head out to the backyard with your kids and finally build the thing!"

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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