In Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, children explore the Enchanted Wood and climb to the top of a tree so tall that its highest branches reach into far-off lands in the clouds. Blyton’s tree is hollowed and wide enough to contain houses stacked skywards with magical creatures inside.
Many a grown-up gets misty-eyed over childhood memories of holing up in a makeshift treehouse at the bottom of the garden, harking back to a simpler time.
These days, treehouses are no basic wooden affairs with a rope ladder leading up to a cobbled-together fort. And they are no longer just for children. Instead, based on a trend for luxury tree homes stemming from the States, homeowners are splashing out tens of thousands on craftsman-built arboreal spaces complete with home comforts.
High-end versions are now so mainstream that Microsoft opened three last year for its employees at its corporate headquarters outside Seattle, designed by Pete Nelson, a master treehouse builder who lives in Washington state.
His popular Treehouse Masters TV series shows him building luxury tree homes that cost as much as $600,000 (€524,000).
Ireland’s answer to Pete Nelson is Peter O’Brien. The ex-carpenter and one-time building contractor says designing and constructing treehouses for adults and children now accounts for half of his business at Plan Eden, with landscaping and garden design making up the remainder.
For this summer’s Bloom festival, he created Enchanted Wood, a colourful jagged-shaped treehouse set in a woodland garden, and took home the prize for best small show garden. “It was part-Doctor Who and part-Tim Burton, with exaggerated features and a curved roof with a large overhang,” he says.
The appeal of these treetop shelters for all ages is “getting up from the ground for that sense of isolation. It goes back to the Prospect-refuge theory (developed by English geographer Jay Appleton in 1975), where we want a view out to the landscape from a safe enclosed space, which is a primordial human instinct,” O’Brien says.
Most of his clients have “deep pockets, but also a willingness to see the value of good quality design”. He is currently working on an elaborate €90,000-treehouse set on two different trees and connected by a six-metre-long rope bridge. It will have a shingled roof, a sleeping loft and be wired and insulated.
“The cost depends on the height of the trees and the access to it and whether the treehouse is wired, insulated and glazed,” O’Brien says. “For a basic room in a tree I could do something for between €30,000 and €40,000. And it’s no longer just about treehouses themselves: in one garden in south Dublin I added a zipline, and I’ve done bridges and play-towers.
“The treehouses are designed for the family. So, the adults might use it as a place to watch the sunset or as a home office, and teens can use it for sleepovers and a study space.”
O’Brien builds three or four luxury treehouses a year, but constructing a home in a tree is no mean feat, and not all species are suitable.
“The oak is particularly suitable because there’s often room for a treehouse at the crown, but I wouldn’t recommend putting one on an ash tree because of ash die-back disease,” he says. “You start with the platform and prefabricate as much of a treehouse as possible. The structure of the platform must allow for movement in the tree; when a building is wrapped around a tree, it’s a growing living entity and you have to maintain it and prune it. I usually go back every two or three years to maintain it.”
Pat Meagher, who runs Treehouses.ie from west Clare, recently built a wooden viewing deck 35ft up a tree in the garden of a home in Clare so his client could relax there and take in views across to Scattery Island off the Kilrush coast.
“Tree surgeon training is vital because the most important part of building tree platforms and tree houses is understanding different types trees, which ones can take the weight, how much weight and where,” says the craftsman.
Ireland’s treehouse lovers include Sybil Mulcahy, broadcaster and editor of Evoke.ie. After she and husband John bought their south Dublin home in 2014, he decided to add a cabin-style treehouse.
“We got someone in to design it and a carpenter built it over two weeks,” says Mulcahy. “It’s built around a tree, which is cool. I’ve painted it a few times, I’m going for the nautical look at the moment, and we put fairy lights around it at Christmas.”
When the guesthouse business at Grove House, a Georgian pile outside Skibbereen, succumbed to the recession, Peter and Anna Warburton built self-catering treehouses in their woods to rent out for up to €189 a night. Operated under the Warburtons’ Cottages for Couples brand, they come with the comforts of home, as well as hot tubs.
“There is something magical about being up in the trees and sitting in a hot tub watching the sunset,” the Warburtons say. “It’s like going back to nature but with all the creature comforts.”
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