By Rachel Ingram and Virginia Daffron
When the DIY Network’s “Treehouse Guys” put out the word that the television show was looking for WNC property owners interested in constructing a treehouse on their land, two local couples — Michael and Caroline Parrish and Michael and Eva Greene — were among those vying to be chosen.
The Parrishes’ treehouse made its national television debut on Aug. 30 and is now ready to welcome overnight guests as the first unit of a planned 20-treehouse vacation-rental resort. The treehouse village will be part of Serenity, a residential development set atop Baird Mountain in Woodfin. The 50-acre project (whose retaining wall is visible from future Interstate 26), will also include 40 residential homesites and a resort building.
Michael Parrish, a retired human resources professional, joined forces with Dale Deines, a dentist, to create the vision for the property. But neither Parrish nor Deines is a real estate developer, let alone an authority on treehouse construction. That’s where the expertise of the DIY Network came in, with “Treehouse Guys” stars James Roth and Chris Haake, along with treehouse pioneer Michael Garnier, all lending their expertise to get the project, well, off the ground.
In addition to the project leaders, the DIY Network crew also included arborists, engineers, interior designers and other specialists.
The treehouses at Serenity, which rely on trees as their sole support, will meet all applicable building code requirements. “There are no posts supporting the structure,” Parrish says of the newly built first treehouse. “It’s built just between two trees.”
The stairs leading up to the entrance of the treehouse, building contractor Robert Anderson adds, are “a hinged staircase — it’s not attached to anything other than the treehouse, so it just floats there right above the ground and can be moved if needed.” Because it’s not connected to the earth, the house moves with the trees during high winds and as the trees grow, Anderson notes.
Each treehouse will be between 400 to 500 square feet and, while the designs and features will vary, amenities may include outdoor wine bars, fire pits and hot tubs. “It’s all about that whimsical look,” says Parrish, “so we’re going to experiment.”
Parrish explains that his goal is to complete the project while borrowing the minimum amount of money necessary, so the treehouses will be constructed only a few at a time. “We’re not going to rush into it and throw a bunch of them up. We’re going to take our time.”
The tree castle
Even though construction on the Greenes’ treehouse began before the Parrishes’, their project is still a few weeks away from completion. Michael Greene, the former owner of Wick & Greene Jewelers in downtown Asheville (the Greenes’ daughter Eva-Michelle Spicer and her husband Elliott Spicer recently took over the business), says their Reems Creek treehouse has turned into “more of a tree castle.”
Boone-based builder Michael Stam, who is also a trained arborist, reports that the Greenes’ structure incorporates 3 1/2 tons of steel into its structure. In addition to a steel-framed platform, the design also incorporates two steel ground-support posts.
Sheathed in the outer layers of two hollowed-out oak trees, the steel posts are nearly indistinguishable from the living trees that support the 1,200-square-foot structure. Built on a steep hillside, the Greenes’ treehouse sits close to the ground on the uphill side, making it easy to reach the treehouse via a curving staircase. On the downhill side, however, the wide, undulating decks soar 35 feet from the ground.
“Up here, you have a whole different communication with nature,” Eva Greene says. “You are at the level of the birds. When it rains, it sounds completely different.”
Once the project is complete, Greene continues, she and her husband plan to live in the treehouse while their 1920s-era Asheville home undergoes renovations. In the future, the Greenes may operate the treehouse as a very special vacation rental. It sits on the hillside above the Carolina Jewel, a 19th-century farmhouse and cottage the couple rent out for wedding parties, family reunions and other gatherings, as well as smaller groups of guests.
Building green in the trees
Hanging out in a treehouse sounds like a nature lover’s dream come true, but how healthy is the structure for the tree and the environment? The Parrishes and the Greenes relied on treehouse expert Michael Garnier to ensure that their structures are tree-friendly, safe and sustainable.
Garnier, who owns Out ‘n’ About Treehouse Treesort in Cave Junction, Ore., has followed a singular path to his current status as one of the nation’s leading authorities on treehouse construction. After a stint studying engineering in college, Garnier was drafted into the Army and served as a medic with the Green Berets. In 1973, he re-entered civilian life and moved to Oregon, where he practiced medicine as a physician’s assistant. Yet Garnier found himself spending more time on woodworking projects and less on providing health care. In the mid-’70s, woodworking became his full-time occupation. He got interested in pole-building construction, which led him to wonder how trees could be used to support part or all of a structure’s load. Garnier completed his first treehouse in 1990.
From the beginning of his treehouse odyssey, Garnier worked to devise a fastening system that would support the weight of a treehouse while maintaining the health of the tree over time. He developed the Garnier Limb treehouse fastening bolt, which he says is now used across the United States for treehouse residential structures and vacation rentals, as well as ziplines, viewing platforms and aerial walkways. Garnier’s own home is an 1,800-square-foot treehouse supported by seven trees.
According to Garnier, the main environmental benefit of treehouse construction over conventional foundation construction is that the trees on the building site can remain in place with their roots undisturbed. Even when ground-based buildings are nestled among trees, Garnier says, their foundations cut into existing root systems and diminish the trees’ ability to absorb nutrients and water from the soil.
As a vacation-rental operator, Garnier makes money from his trees. But unlike timber-related operations that require cutting trees down to generate revenue, Garnier’s business cashes in on leaving the trees in place and keeping them healthy. His property now includes 13 rental treehouses as well as aerial walkways, ziplines and swings. When asked about the resort’s popularity, Garnier reports, “We’re renting a year out.”
In addition to the benefits to the trees, Garnier continues, vertical building methods that minimize excavation cause far fewer soil erosion and stormwater runoff issues.
Plumbing and electrical systems work pretty much the same way in treehouses as in conventional structures, Garnier says, although water supply pipes need to be well-insulated to protect them against freezing. Depending on the height of the treehouse and area water pressure, some treehouses require booster pumps to get the water up to the structure.
The maximum size of a treehouse is determined by the number of trees available to serve as its foundation. A single large, healthy tree can support a 350- to 400-square-foot treehouse, while two trees can hold a 700- to 800-square-foot structure, Garnier explains.
Stam estimates that building a treehouse costs 5 to 30 percent more than a comparable conventional structure. Although eliminating excavation and a foundation system saves money, every other aspect of the building process costs more and takes longer, since the design and construction approach must be custom-tailored to suit each individual location and stand of trees.
Because of an unusual septic system design on the Greenes’ vacation rental property, a treehouse turned out to be the only building method that could have worked on their site. Although that consideration is specific to their property, treehouse construction methods could be well-suited to other ecologically sensitive or fragile sites.
And for Eva Greene, the intangible benefits of living in a tree more than make up for the increased cost and complexity. “It’s kind of a childlike dream, being up high among the trees,” she reflects. “But in the case of our treehouse, it comes with all the adult comforts.”