Introduction: How to Plan a Tree House

About: Sam Wright is a freelance writer who works with Flights of Fantasy and wants to live in luxury tree houses.
Tree houses are one of idyllic childhood symbols. A special place, away from parents and school, that is just your own. It’s not hard to see why it’s an idea that’s persisted for generations. But actually building the tree house isn’t kids’ work. To make sure everything about it is exactly right – and most importantly, that it’s safe, the kids are going to need to some serious adult supervision. This is where you come in. Helping you get it right is where we come in.

Here are some of the crucial issues you need to think about when designing a tree house.

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Step 1: Choosing the Right Tree

If you’re building a tree house in your back garden the chances are you don’t have a wild array of choice over which tree you’re going to put it in. However, you want to make sure that it’s a sturdy one that isn’t going to sway too wildly in the wind or buckle under the weight of the house itself. Find a healthy tree, then start building your design around it – the tree itself is going to be part of the structure of your house, so you can’t simply take a standard tree house design and plug it onto any old tree, you have to work around it.

Ideally you want a tree with a trunk that’s at least twelve inches in diameter, which should support a house of eight by eight foot. You can work out the tree’s diameter by using the old school trick of wrapping a tape measure around it and dividing it by pi – even better, get your kids to do it and they’ll learn some maths while you’re making their tree house!
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Step 2: Making Your Designs

Once you’ve found your tree, you need to start drawing up plans. There are plenty of tree house designs online that will give you a place to start, but even the most comprehensive plan won’t survive contact with the actual tree, you’ll need to be able to customise it to your specific circumstances.

A good way to do this is to make a mock-up out of cardboard to find any potential problems early on.

There’s also one more factor that you absolutely must take into account. You’re not building on a flat surface, or even a stationary surface. That tree is going to grow, so you need to make sure that there’s plenty of space for that to happen without wrecking everything. Before getting out the hammer and nails, learn about the growth rate of your tree to avoid nasty surprises.
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Step 3: Choose Your Supports

Your tree house is going to need support to help it withstand the weight of children playing inside it as well as the pressures of the elements it’s exposed to. Over the many years of tree house building, we’ve devised a number of clever ways to do this.

There’s “the post method”, which involves sticking support posts deep into the ground near the tree. This method is popular because the posts don’t actually touch the tree itself, so it’s not in danger of being damaged.

The “bolt method” is more traditional, and a little bit less tree-friendly. You bolt support beams directly into the tree, holding everything in place. If you choose your materials carefully, this needn’t damage the tree too much.

The “suspension” method comes at the problem literally from a different angle. Using cables, chains or ropes, you suspend the tree house from the strongest high branches. This design very much depends on you having the right kind of tree, and it can be a risk if you expect the tree house is going to have to hold a significant amount of weight.

Step 4: Work Out How to Get in and Out

Finally, you need to know how you’re going to get in and out of the tree house. Once again, the most important thing here is safety. You need something sturdy that can take a lot of weight and withstand any punishment doled out to it by children and weather alike.
The traditional tree house ladder – some planks of wood nailed into the trunk of the tree – is a disaster waiting to happen. An ordinary step ladder, as purchased from any DIY store, or simply taken from an old bunk bed, will do the trick nicely. Alternatively, for something a little more adventurous, a rope ladder hung from the tree house platform will also work, but make sure it’s fastened properly.

If you really feel like a construction project, and safety is your foremost concern, a small staircase is the safest option. It might not conform with your idea of what a tree house should look like, but it’s a good protection against nasty accidents.

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