America’s foremost treehouse builder lives right here in Washington, and his jewel-like refuges among the maples and firs are like something out of Tolkien.
Pete Nelson is a tree hugger.
I mean this literally — within 10 minutes of joining Nelson at his property in Fall City (20 minutes outside of Seattle), I saw him actually hug a tree, a massive Douglas fir he embraced like a family member.
It seemed appropriate for a guy sometimes called “The Tree Whisperer.” Nelson is America’s foremost treehouse builder, owner of Nelson Treehouse and host of the Animal Planet show “Treehouse Masters” (2013-18), in which he and a team of carpenters created bespoke arboreal playhouses all over the country (and even the world).
But the Nelson family home base is here in the Pacific Northwest, where the trees are at their most magnificent. TreeHouse Point, as the Nelson property is called, is like something out of Tolkien — all towering Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and maples with their twisted, tentaclelike branches covered in a thick coat of emerald-green moss, otherworldly and divinely fecund.
The Raging River (yes, that’s its real name) winds around TreeHouse Point’s 4-acre lot, and while you know the road is only a few feet away, you still feel like you’ve stepped into a wonderland, the stuff of fairy tales that make you cuddle up a little closer after dark.
Which is, really, what you’re supposed to do at TreeHouse Point, where guests stay in tiny structures built for romance. Most have one queen bed and a hygge factor of 11 out of 10 and a no-children policy, adding to the peace and quiet. (One treehouse has a pair of twin beds on either side of the main queen bed, perhaps for a passel of bridesmaids; Treehouse Point is a popular spot for weddings.) Nelson’s buildings are set up like tiny houses — some even include private composting toilets. The rest of the facilities, including showers, are located in a spalike bathhouse at the base of the trees.
What does Nelson look for in a tree (or set of trees)? “The best scenario is four trees in the corners, so you can put your beams across, connecting trees,” he says. “You need two beams typically. If you have that going for you, you put the joists on top of that, and then the floor, and then you’re off to the races.”
Nelson built his first treehouse as a kid, and never quite got over it. He attempted to grow out of it, first by studying economics, then becoming a builder, crafting single-family homes in Seattle. But ultimately (and with support from his wife, Judy, and their three kids) he followed his bliss. With a team of carpenters and some forgiving initial bank loans (it was the early ’00s, after all), Nelson turned a hobby into a (minimalist) empire.
“I loved the scale of treehouses,” said Nelson. “I loved the feeling I got when I was thinking about and drawing treehouses, and I said to myself, ‘If I can figure out a way to make a living doing that, all is good.’”
On TreeHouse Point’s website (treehousepoint.com), you can inquire about staying at the property or even ordering yourself a treehouse.
Because after you stay in one, you might want one.
After all, most of Nelson’s treehouses are essentially playhouses for grown-ups. He’s built a “secret lair” complete with stairs hidden behind a bookcase and a “dungeon” squirreled away into an elevated platform. He’s currently at work on a 1,000-plus square-foot treehouse version of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, cockpit included. Some owners do live in their treehouses full time, though, and if you want a kitchen, bathroom and even laundry in the trees, Nelson can accommodate you.
But it won’t come cheap.
Your childhood treehouse was probably a bunch of precariously suspended two-by-fours that gave your mother the vapors, but the ones Nelson builds can be full-time homes. They’re solid structures, jewellike and joined together with old-world carpentry in a style that looks like it’s been there forever and might be there forever more — but with glass windows, heaters and foam insulation in the roof and under the floor.
Out-of-state costs average around $300,000 for a structure; it’s slightly less for locals.
“I love being able to go to the wood part of things instead of getting an excavator, ripping up the earth, pouring concrete and putting in rebar. It’s painful,” said Nelson. “This is what it’s all about, getting back into the woods and recognizing what a beautiful place we live in, if I can do it with little simple respectful structures supported by these trees.”
The houses at TreeHouse Point are even being fitted with fire alarms and railings to conform to King County code — a building code, by the way, that had to be amended just for Nelson, since “tree houses” were not formerly part of the state’s regular routine. All the houses are also equipped with stairs and railings or suspension bridges instead of ladders. There are currently six treehouses on the property, and Nelson is about to begin construction of a seventh, which will be wheelchair-accessible.
“Trying to make money building treehouses is the hard part,” Nelson says of his business. “Like any builder, you build treehouses, and hope you make your margin and pay your bills. Treehouses in this model continue to give over time. The hospitality side of things is really fun for us because we get to hold on to them.”
Or as Nelson did — literally wrap your arms around them and give them an affectionate squeeze.