Winter 2017 - Features

Branching Out

Branching Out Header

You are in the woods.

You are walking down a trail buried deep in old-growth forest miles from a trace of civilization in every direction.

Except that, in the tree — a cabin perched on the branches, full of ornate, bespoke details but synced with the natural, unspoiled beauty around it. If such luxury in the middle of the forest feels like a fantasy, it is. It’s also the everyday job of Daniel Ash ’08,
an architect with world-renowned arboreal homebuilders Nelson Treehouse & Supply (NTS) based outside Seattle, Wash.

“To be honest, I just love building cool stuff in the middle
of nowhere,” said Ash. “People want treehouses for all kinds
of reasons, but a lot of people associate them with a particular experience, almost like a fantasy, something that you just don’t see in reality very often. And because it’s a treehouse, it can be whatever you want.”

When Ash says ‘treehouse,’ he’s not referring to the box you had in your backyard as a kid. These are complex, expertly crafted adult-sized structures loaded with modern amenities like electronic appliances and indoor plumbing.

The price for these one-of-a-kind concept homes is the difference between fantasy and reality, but for NTS’ hundreds of clients around the world, they serve as on-property vacation homes, man caves, outdoor offices and more. A niche industry like treehouse construction necessitates a small, but adroit field
of companies. Nelson Treehouse & Supply towers above the rest.   

When asked what Ash has learned from Pete Nelson, founder of Nelson Treehouse and Supply, the response is swift and firm: Everything.

Pete Nelson didn’t create the ‘luxury treehouse’ industry singlehandedly, but has been a prime mover ever since building his own backyard treehouse in 1987. After years constructing ‘ground houses,’ Nelson created Nelson Treehouse and Supply, responsible for several hundred builds. Then, in 2013 the TV show Treehouse Masters debuted on Animal Planet, providing an inside look at creating one-of-a-kind treehouses around the country. Nine seasons in, with a new house every episode, work literally never ends.

If you’re looking for Ash on TV, though, you won’t find him. He’s behind the scenes or in the studio tweaking designs, preferring to work off-camera instead.

“Pete [Nelson] is great at the show, he’s so good working with the camera, but I would much rather just design stuff.” The show’s relentless production schedule — 76 episodes since 2013 — is a blessing and a challenge, Ash said. On one hand, Treehouse Masters is their best and primary form of advertising; it also pushes everyone, Nelson included, to deliver breathtaking products at a breathless pace, frustrating for someone who prefers to perfect the details.

Since its debut, Treehouse Masters generates more offers than they can show on TV, which is where Ash comes in.
“I want to design stuff, work with the builders in the shop, meet the clients, establish a relationship with them, make sure they’re happy,” he said. “I really like working directly with people who are actually cutting the wood or laying the tile. That relationship works best for the way I design.”
In 2006, while still an undergrad in Auburn’s college of architecture, design and construction, Ash was searching for a medium where designing and building mattered as much as the environment around it. When a classmate passed along Nelson’s 1994 book “Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out On a Limb,” inspiration struck. Needing an internship, Ash took a gamble and called Nelson Treehouse & Supply; Nelson himself answered the phone and hired him.

“Pete is the pioneer, he’s the guy — him and only a handful of other people built this whole industry, it’s really impressive,” Ash said. “And Pete’s a very accommodating guy — if you got a good attitude and really want to do it, he’s in. He’ll find a way to make it happen.”

Ash learned on the job the unique challenges to building treehouses, like inclement weather in remote locations. At a job along a river near Houston, Ash and the crew hauled their supplies more than 300 yards downhill, only watch a flash flood nearly wash it all away.

Treehouse in the trees
Daniel Ash 08

He loved every minute of it, even freelancing for NTS while finishing his undergrad. After his wife and fellow Auburn architecture alum Sandy Wolf ’09 graduated, they moved to Seattle and took on traditional architecture jobs.

“I took a couple other jobs, but everybody just wanted to build bigger and taller things; that really wasn’t what interested me,” said Ash. “I wanted a very specific connection to the things I designed and the setting in which they were located.”

While living in Seattle, Ash’s rock-climbing partner and NTS project manager Daryl McDonald explained how things had changed since Treehouse Masters. Bigger, operating like a well-oiled machine, building all across the country. Looking for a change, Ash reached out to Nelson again.

“It became pretty obvious pretty fast that it was a really good position for me. He’s so busy with the show, he almost doesn’t have the time to do the stuff that I actually want to,” said Ash. “I’m going out, I’m meeting with clients, I’m designing as much as I want to, it’s terrific.”

Since rejoining NTS in 2016, Ash and his team have built more treehouses around the globe than they can count, averaging a seven-week turnaround from inception to completion.

Some, like one in Alaska’s Denali National Park, required a commercial-grade composite floor to keep the wood from splintering in sub-zero winters. Another, in Maine, was built with a 12-foot operable glass door. Someone once asked for a shark tank in theirs. More than one has asked for a Jacuzzi inside their treehouse. Requests for Sci-Fi inspired houses come frequently.

“They’re treehouses — they’re all similar amounts of crazy,” said Ash.

One of NTS’ most difficult projects happened this past year during an intense Wisconsin winter, where determining a healthy tree without leaves can be extremely difficult. At the heart of a 500-acre property, Ash mapped 3D models of a pair of trees the clients wanted for a large, three-part treehouse

“This was a TV job, so we had to be on site by this specific day. Four weeks out, we’re reviewing the video I took and we notice that there’s a little bit of a fungus on the bottom of one, this Tukey Tail Conk almost covered in snow. We just didn’t see
it — that means the tree is dead, or in the process of dying.”

Structurally unsound, Ash and his team had to abandon the trees, throw out the shop designs and create something new from scratch in 24 hours. Fortunately, on projects of this size and cost, they always have Plan B trees already picked out, just in case. “Sometimes something happens to these trees — they get struck by lightning, somebody will buy the piece of property next to it — you come up with a backup plan.”

Such unexpected twists are rarely seen on the show. In reality, the chaos ensuing the abandonment of one design for another meant less preparation ahead of time, which meant the construction crew had to work 14 hours a day, six days a week,
for four weeks.

More often than not, however, it’s the projects that take long on purpose that are the exception to the norm, like a technology company near Seattle who wanted to give employees the feel of stepping into the woods only a few minutes from their desks. Ash designed a series of treehouses for their corporate campus with few directives, but filled with special requests, like keycard locks and electronic doors. Ash relished the challenge.

“When you’re building something you want to look like it grew with the forest, you don’t want the electronics right in front of you,” he said. “We designed some ‘gizmos’ — like switches — and hid them inside the wood so it’s almost invisible.”

They altered the treehouses’ insulation to climactically change with the seasons. A long, circuitous path was carved through the campus’ woods to give the impression of hiking through the forest. Still under construction more than a year later, the project is far from over, but Ash appreciates the carte-blanche NTS was given.

treehouse collage

“We get a lot of jobs where people basically want a whole house that sleeps six, with a kitchen and a full bathroom, and that’s all fine, but that’s a very specific challenge to fit all these spaces into a tree. But this campus job is a lot of fun because they didn’t know exactly what they wanted, we just got to come up with ideas and explore them. I like those kinds of treehouses.”

When given free reign, Ash and NTS pull out all the stops, from using beautiful, reclaimed wood to intricately compact floorplans. At TreeHouse Point, their bed-and-breakfast in Issaquah, Wash., guests can stay in flawless dwellings built by NTS craftsman for the fun of it.

Treehouse requests come in year-round, in addition to projects for the TV show. After meeting the clients at their property and doing some preliminary research, a tree or cluster of trees is selected and Ash begins sketching design ideas.

The biggest misconception people often have, he said, is believing the treehouse is physically attached to the tree. Instead, the house is built around the tree, allowing it to continue growing and thriving into the future. “Everything in a treehouse starts with the tree; trees dictate what you can and can’t put in them,” said Ash.

Building on remote locations means every minute spent transporting, lodging and traveling must be cost-effective. The most expedient way to accomplish this is pre-fabricating every element at the NTS workshop, like a ‘treehouse kit’ ready for assembly on-site. With little margin for error, especially on-site, the NTS craftsmen routinely calculate geometry to a 64th of an inch, a number so exact Ash says they can’t even cut to that specificity.

Since the industry began in earnest, the technology and equipment evolves parallel to the ever-expanding treehouse designs. Whereas, in the old days, treehouses were mostly unregulated, today’s scale and intricacy warrants building permits and structural inspections. To scientifically test the weight-bearing capacity of their heavy-duty treehouse hardware, Nelson Treehouse & Supply sent their entire hardware set to the Composite Materials & Engineering Center at Washington State University, Pullman for structural testing.

“Now we can say ‘this is a graded assembly; we know it can definitely support this much weight.’ That makes building permit officials a lot happier and more comfortable because they know these things have been figured out. We’re not just cowboys with toolbelts building whatever we want up in a tree.”

Once the kit is ready, it’s loaded in a truck (or, in the case of Alaska, a shipping container) and transported to the location, where it’s assembled in three to six weeks while Ash begins designing the next project. But not every treehouse gets built.

“This is an important thing to remember: nobody, anywhere, needs a treehouse,” he said. “Nobody, because it ultimately is a luxury item. Which is great in one sense, because when people get them, it’s because they’re passionate about it. The downside of that is a client going ‘whoops, I don’t have as much money as I thought I did, this project is dead.’ Just like that.”

During the economic recession NTS built only a couple of treehouses per year. Despite the uptick in business now, Ash says they take nothing for granted, especially quality.

“There’s a lot of people who want to goof around and build treehouses all day. We have this job because we like to goof around, but we get to keep doing it because we’re the best at it. If you want to do this for clients like ours, at the scale that we do it at, [NTS] is the best of the best. Everyone is so good. It’s really great to work with people like that.”

In addition to shooting Treehouse Masters’ 10th season, NTS plans to unveil a treehouse resort and spa in the Seattle area similar to TreeHouse Point, but on a larger scale, with around 40 dwellings, a venue for weddings and more by 2019.

To have such a large role in such a unique industry is a blessing Ash is reminded of every day. There are plenty of treehouses in the world, but very few treehouse architects, and the community stays as tight as their handiwork.

“It’s cool to know that, with that many tree houses out there, if you didn’t build it, there’s a good chance that somebody you know did,” said Ash. “We’re all very likeminded, we’re all tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping hippies who just want to have fun all day.”