Tree houses have always been the object of children's fantasies but they are now becoming more and more popular as an adult retreat or even for use as a home office or garden studio
The ultimate Robinson Crusoe escape for adventurous children of all ages, tree houses can be accommodated in the smallest of gardens or extend to multiroom dwellings in the sky.
Tree houses or "roosting places" as our Tudor forebears called them have been popular all over the world from Switzerland to Tasmania and never more so than today. There are still Amazon tribes who live on raised platforms high above the floodplains that fill with water during rain strikes. In 17th century Persia (now Iran) affluent families created elaborate tree houses decorated with silver and gold, with running water on tap.
The tree house was popular too during the Italian renaissance but fell out of fashion as formal gardens and parterres took the place of informal parkland. In 17th century England, lime trees were specifically trained and pleated to support several rooms one on top of another, with wooden plank floors. One famous example offered a treetop banqueting house in its three storeys at Cobham Hall. You can still see an early 17th century version at Pitcham Hall near Acton Burnell in Shropshire that was played in by the young Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria.
Churchill constructed a tree house twenty feet up a spreading lime tree at his home in Chartwell and John Lennon had one overlooking the Strawberry Fields orphanage. One of the highest profile tree houses was the mid 19th century restaurant officially called "Le Grand Arbre" but universally known as "Les Robinsons" which offered three storeys of al fresco eating eight miles west of Paris. Food was hoisted up on baskets. At its height, 200 tables could be reserved making it popular for weddings and other family celebrations.
For a small, informal tree house, normally planning permission is not required but if you live in a conservation area, or if the tree involved is protected by a preservation order then you should check with the local authorities. However, for grander structures over ten cubic metres in size or higher than four metres, you might need special permission and be subject to building regulations. The selection of one or more appropriate trees for your structure is clearly critical, as is calculating the strength of its trunk, boughs and roots.
No tree house should harm its host tree, and wood should always be sourced from sustainable forests. The design of your tree will, to a large extent, be dictated by the host tree and the site. It isn't essential to have a tree with branching support boughs: a tree house can be built around the trunk alone or, of course, be partially or totally free standing. If your tree house is designed for small children, then a fruit tree often provides an ideal host. Build the platform about a metre off the ground and ensure that you have a strong ladder for access at an angle at about 60 degrees. A pallet makes an ideal basic platform but pad or saw off corners to avoid damaging the tree. For small children, surrounding the base of the ladder with bark Chippings is a good safety feature since bare earth can dry to concrete hardness in summer months.
If you don't have a tree that is suitable, then you can easily build a house on stilts and mask the supports with planting- either climbers or young trees. Fast growing trees such as wild cherry or lime can be trained to grow around a house on stilts and for smaller spaces the mountain ash is ideal.
A tree house for children needs to incorporate as many opportunities for adventure and mystery as possible within a safe framework. Adding rope ladders, distant looking platforms, scramble nets, a flying fox or cable runway will all add to the scope for fun. Before long, a well designed tree house becomes the main attraction for children's play with the added benefit of keeping those thundering feet of lawns and borders.
Tree houses are not just for children, however. Tree houses can provide outdoor studies, dining rooms, garden rooms or just a romantic extension to the house for all the family to enjoy. More sophisticated examples can mirror the architectural style of your house to include finials, thatched roof, Gothic windows, and a real boon to any tree house- a balcony. For adult use the siting for the tree house is paramount. Clearly, safety factors are less critical than for young children, allowing greater heights and longer views. If you plan to use the tree house mainly during the long summer evenings, try to ensure that you have a west facing view to ensure that you can enjoy a spectacular sunset.
If the idea of doing it yourself is just too daunting, there is now a wide range of specialist firms who will design and build a bespoke tree house to any specification. Expect to pay about £10,000 for a reasonably basic, one-room option but telephone figures can be charged for really state of the art examples. With light and heat, elaborate architectural features, balconies, walkways, and panelled interiors. Specialist companies can create tee houses that compete with conservatories as extensions to your living space. Light and heat can be wired in for practical all year round use or you can make a feature of no mod cons and enjoy the special experience of candlelight.