At home in the treetops


Max and Hannah Lyons spend long summer afternoons climbing, sliding and riding a zip line attached to the treehouse in their Fairfax, Va., back yard. One recent Saturday night, after a family gathering and grilling on the patio, 8-year-old Hannah and her dad, Ken Lyons, camped out in sleeping bags nine feet up, lulled to sleep by the rustling of the leaves.

In this age of cellphones and summer camps, the appeal of treehouses remains undeniable: For children, a space of their own perched above daily life, and adult supervision. For their parents, a chance to get kids outside, climbing and imagining, and away from the computer and TV.

Often, parents are pulled by the memories of their own childhood in what seems like a simpler, less-regimented time.

"I remember as a kid having a hideout where we could go and be away from the adults," says Jane Connolly of Bethesda, Md. "Kids (today) have too much structured time. It's good for them to go outside and have a free type of play. They can be creative and make up games."

"My brother and I had tree forts when we were younger," says Paul Connolly, who built the house for his three sons in the hopes that they might hold on to similar memories.

"Treehouses are everywhere," says Peter Nelson, author of four books about treehouses, most recently "Treehouses of the World," and co-founder of TreeHouse Workshop, a treehouse-building company in Seattle ().

In the past three years, Nelson's company, which builds in the United States and internationally, has grown 20 percent each year. "You take a walk in the woods, and nature has an incredibly soothing effect. It's rejuvenating," he says. "Treehouses are a part of that."

Sitting 11 feet off the ground in the Connollys' back yard is the treehouse Paul built out of plywood and plexiglass left over from work as a general contractor. The 4-by-8-foot structure overlooks a neighborhood park and has a rope ladder, a built-in bench and a bucket attached to a pulley for hoisting things up.

"The kids love it," Jane Connolly says. "They've gotten so much enjoyment out of it. They go up there and hide, take lunch up. They make up games; they throw footballs into the windows."

"It's fun to be up there, and it's fun to be the only one on the street to have a treehouse," says Evan, 10, shortly after throwing a perfect spiral through the open treehouse window.

Some parents, including Jane Connolly, attribute their children's romance with treehouses to "The Magic Tree House" books. The popular series follows the adventures of a brother and sister whose treehouse has the power to transport them anywhere in the past or future.

"(Treehouses) give children a sense of independence in a safe environment," says Danielle Navidi of Northwest Washington, who had a treehouse built for her children eight years ago. "It gives a sense of family, and also to a certain degree, a sense of adventure."

Navidi's treehouse was originally built for her two sons, Fabien, 14, and Sebastien, 11. "At the time it was for the two boys ... now our young daughter uses it the most." Anya, 8, has turned the hideaway into a girls' clubhouse.

Treehouses run the gamut from DIY affairs sketched out on a kitchen table to kits found online. Some people turn to local contractors or a handyman for the actual construction. Others call in a specialty treehouse design firm.

The costs escalate accordingly. Nelson's no-frills (and no walls) models start at $85 a square foot, for just a platform. At the other extreme, a playhouse with walls, roof, ladders and a bridge can start at $20,000. The most expensive he has built cost an extraordinary $320,000 and included modern amenities such as fireplaces, stainless steel appliances, running water and plumbing. These projects, he admits, are actually more second homes than true treehouses. "When it has things like kitchens and bathrooms, it loses some of its spirit," he says.

Nelson notes the success of an organization that designs handicapped-accessible treehouses for children with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Forever Young Treehouses (), a 9-year-old nonprofit group in Burlington, Vt., incorporates wheelchair ramps, elevated walkways and rest platforms.

In May, the organization completed a project at Camp Still Meadows, a camp for people with disabilities just north of Harrisonburg, Va., and its goal is to build a wheelchair-accessible treehouse in every state.

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