Trend Alert: Treehouses for Grownups

Virginia workshop teaching adults the art of treehouse building

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    ABINGDON, Va. - It's perched above the forest floor, where nature sings outside the door, inviting as a place of rest, beside the birds a human nest.

    A treehouse, which is for many a fanciful piece of childhood, is increasingly a habitat for grownups too, and a weekend workshop brought people to Washington County from around the world in a quest to learn the skills to build a home in the trees.

    "There's a kid in all of us, and that is what the treehouse tends to appeal to," said Jake Jacob, co-founder and co-owner of Treehouse Workshop, a Seattle-based company that builds treehouses -- often as a guest house, home office or art or music studio.

    He said the company has built treehouses in 32 states and nine countries, and the workshop here was one of about 16 the company has put together over the years.

    "The true secret is the energy of the tree," said Peter Nelson, Jacob's partner and the author of five books on treehouses.

    "I'm convinced we lived up in trees way back when. Trees have spirits, I think, so it's an energy, and I think it's really calming."

    The draw, say treehouse owners, is a quiet connectedness to nature that comes from existing in a tree -- and being "unplugged" from the rat race and the demanding electronic devices that permeate our world.

    "It's just like being part of nature because you've got all of these wild critters, from bear to turkey to deer, that were walking all around the ground, and they don't realize you're there unless you're making noise," said Rachel Fowlkes, whose treehouse on the Virginia Creeper Trail was the site of the workshop.

    "If you're just sitting on the porch, they just walk all around you or flap all around you," she said. "You're not invading their land space."

    Jacob said it's often baby boomers with fond memories of childhood treehouses who are most eager to build them as adults. Some even build them for their kids but ultimately take over the treehouses for themselves, he said.

    Nelson said treehouses also are receiving more acceptance among 20-somethings, especially as the green movement has taken off, because they're a relatively low-impact type of building.

    Zadie Lawler, of New York City, said her family sent her to the workshop for her 40th birthday present. She always wanted a treehouse as a child but never had any appropriate trees, she said. Now grown up and a professional musician, she finally has an opportunity to build one,_and she came to learn.

    Kevin Tate, a land planner from Asheville, N.C., said he sees treehouses as a valuable community space and an important opportunity as the economy emerges from recession.

    People have a hunger for developments that put community first, and he said, more than ever they'll choose "outside-the-box" projects over cookie-cutter, vinyl-sided houses.

    Alvin Lee, who leads corporate team-building exercises involving sand-castle construction in Singapore, has a vision of the community building a village of treehouses in his tiny, extremely urbanized country, where there's very little green space and almost all of the trees are owned by the government.

    He said the sort of community that is developed working together on a project like that leads to good companies, good office environments, good customer service and various other desirable qualities in business and society.

    Jacob said another workshop is being planned in Washington County next year, with a second on the West Coast.

    Fowlkes said she doesn't give tours of her treehouse except as part of classes held through the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center's College for Older Adults and Weekend Adult Lifetime Learning.

    Ben Smith, an Abingdon builder who spent three years working with the treehouse crew, said besides Fowlkes' treehouse, the closest he knows of are in Asheville and Chattanooga, Tenn., but he hopes to change that in the near future.

    He recently moved back home and started his company, the Sylvansmith, this year; he has hopes of building more local treehouses and, eventually, a treehouse resort that would give a boost to Washington County's tourism economy.

    "They're kind of magic," he said of treehouses. "You can stand here and look at any one of these trees, but once you're up in the tree, it's an entirely different perspective on the world. Treehouses just provide a safe and comfortable way to experience that, without having to shimmy up the tree yourself."