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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Treehouses are no longer just a child's play space. Grownups are now making arboreal abodes a luxury market item. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Pearson, author of the book Treehouses.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Most of us think of treehouses as childhood play spaces--a couple of boards and nails were all it took to turn the backyard maple into a towering fortress, or a neighbor's oak tree into a secret club. David Pearson is author of the book Treehouses, and he says, these days, tree territory is no longer just for kids.

PEARSON: There has been a renaissance in tree houses. They're used just about for anything and everything you can think of. I mean, some people use them as kids' playhouses, hideaways. Other people use them as retreats; they even use them as offices; they even hold weddings in them, and all sorts of crazy things happen all the time in treehouses.

CURWOOD: You write that the treehouse has served various roles throughout history. Tell us about some of those roles and how they came about.

PEARSON: Well, it's very interesting. The Romans had a period of treehouses, as leisure sort of areas. The Medici family in Italy, they had marble treehouses. How on earth the tree supported them, I don't know, but--then, in Tudor, England, they used to be called roosting places, after birds roosting in trees. Queen Elizabeth I had a banquet in a large linden tree, laid out with tables and cloths and beautiful food. And then, more later, the royal lineage moved onto Elizabeth II, who was on holiday in Kenya at the time that her father, George VI, died. And literally, she went up into the treehouse as a princess and apparently she heard about the death of her father in this treehouse, called Treetops, and had to swear to be Queen, and so she descended as a Queen. So you can see, treehouses have changed things for many people.

CURWOOD: Could you describe for me the kinds of treehouses that you profile in your book? These aren't just something thrown together with a few boards and nails and luck.

PEARSON: Well, we've tried to find a range of treehouses in this book, going right from the absolute basic, which maybe you would try to build with your kids over a weekend, right the way through to sort of luxury tree houses, which people managed to live in pretty well year-round. So we've got treehouses built of corrugated iron in Australia; we've got them built of recycled timber in Oregon; and we've even got a mad tree house where a guy has found disused parts of planes and he's built this plane into his house. And it's just about how far your imagination can go, really, just controls what you do with a tree house.

CURWOOD: I'd like to climb into the treehouse of a Mr. Michael Garnier you have in your book here. This chap seems to be doing a good deal more than just building a playhouse in the trees. Can you tell us about him?

PEARSON: Yes, he's a very interesting guy, and he's one of the main characters in the American treehouse story. He really set up a resort, up in a little valley in Oregon, and it wasn't doing too well back in the '90s. And so he thought, well, why don't I just build a treehouse, in some oak trees that were nearby. That led onto him basically building, as he has now, 11 tree houses in this resort. But it wasn't all sort of easy. Soon as he built the first treehouse, he had problems with the local authorities there. And they were very worried because it didn't have proper concrete foundations like most buildings. So the county officials refused to grant him a building permit. And it was, after that, eight years of court battles until he finally won out, in 1998, when I think they realized, well, if they'd stood up that long and gone through various winters and winds and stuff, they must be OK. And they've now granted him permission. So Garnier now has this lovely resort and has really won out over officialdom.

CURWOOD: In your book you also feature a construction firm that builds treehouses for clients, using state-of-the-art computer-aided design programs, and some of these places look pretty posh here. Nice finish. Good furniture. Windows. Quite commodious. In fact, if I didn't know it was a tree house from the caption of the photograph, I might think it was someone's rather fancy hunting lodge, or weekend getaway.

PEARSON: That's quite true. And I think what happens with people, they start building the tree house, in a very basic sort of way, but over the years they carry on, they add this little bit one season, add a little bit the next season, and then maybe they refurbish a room the next season, and, give it a few years, and it takes on that sort of feeling of a nicely crafted and loved little house.

CURWOOD: So, what are people paying for treehouses these days, if they call someone up and say, Design it, build it for me?

PEARSON: They can spend thousands of dollars. I mean, it can be 10, 20 thousand dollars, probably even more, depending on how many floors they want, how many rooms they want; do they want it to have facilities like a normal house, inside the tree house? How luxurious is it going to be? But, for a lot of people, they really hand over the whole responsibility for designing it, and getting the permission if necessary, and building it, to these specialist companies. And they'll be guided by the trees on your property. The number one thing with a treehouse is to let the tree tell you what the treehouse should be like. And I think most of these companies realize that, you know.

CURWOOD: What sort of energy advantages, efficiency advantages, are there in a treehouse?

PEARSON: I think one great thing is, its size being usually very small, or much smaller than a normal house would be. Because of its size it's obviously going to use less energy, it's going to be easier to heat or cool, and I think people are going to be more comfortable in it for that reason. So it's another good thing to experience, which is living in small things, rather than, particularly in America where you have houses that, well, from European standards are often very large. It's quite interesting, I think, for people to experience the other way and live in quite small spaces, and to see how comfortable they can be and how much they can do in a tiny space.

CURWOOD: Now what do you think this treehouse renaissance says about our psyches, the way we live today, modern life?

PEARSON: I think it says a lot, because today we live increasingly in cities, we live increasingly pressured lives, we don't have enough space around us. Everything we live in is sort of being built and made by someone else. And this is a way to break out of all that and find a bit of personal freedom, a bit of personal space; relate directly to nature. And so I think it's a very rejuvenating thing, to build a treehouse and to experience that wonderful thing of being just up in the trees, with the tree gradually moving, a bit like a boat on a lake. It's not static. With all the birds up there singing away and all the leaves out and the beautiful scent of the trees and the air. I mean, that sort of thing is a rare experience in this world.

CURWOOD: David Pearson is author of the book Treehouses, the first in a series, called The House that Jack Built. Thanks for joining us.

PEARSON: Thank you as well.

CURWOOD: If you'd like to see some of the treehouses Mr. Pearson features in this book, visit our Web site at www.loe.org.




The Treehouse Guide
Out 'N' About Treehouse Resort">


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