Tree Houses in the Press

Don’t Tell this Local Builder to Climb a Tree

The Kennett Paper, July 9, 2009
Don’t Tell this Local Builder to Climb a Tree
By Wm. Shawn Weigel, Staff Writer for the Kennett Paper http://www.southernchestercountyweeklies.com/articles/2009/07/09/kennett_paper/news/doc4a560c0d07ba0431253057.txt

Dan Wright is no elf, and he doesn’t hail from Middle Earth.

That said, he still spends a lot of time hanging out in the trees.

Several years ago, the 30-year-old West Chester resident took his construction experience and married it to his love of challenge courses and the outdoors.

The result is Tree Top Builders custom tree houses, Wright’s main business for the past seven years.

And while Wright has built plenty of smaller kids tree houses, he’s also created some extravagant numbers that are just as costly as “ground houses.”

“Those are a luxury,” Wright said in an interview last week. “There’s a lot of discretionary income associated with a tree house that size.”

Since starting out in 2003, Wright has traveled across the country building his custom tree houses from California to Maine, even designing a few for some famous folk who prefer to remain anonymous.

Not all of Wright’s designs are extravagant, but even the smaller kid-sized tree houses start at $5,000 and can go upwards of $20,000.

The only true limit, Wright said, is within the tree’s structure itself.

“In case you want something the tree can’t support, we have to use ground support – poles, steel supports – for safety reasons,” he said.

Safety is key at Treetop, Wright said, something that he’s seen a dearth of in other tree house companies.

“There are other builders that will build everything but they don’t ask the quality or safety questions like, is this something I should be making?” Wright said. “I’ve seen things that really should not have been built.”

Where it all starts is in the attachment points, where the tree house physically connects to each tree. Using simple arboreal fasteners found in a hardware store may stand up for a while, Wright said, but ultimately fail down the line as they actually interfere with the tree’s growth.

“With a lot of do-it-yourself jobs, you can’t tell anything’s wrong at first, but it’s three to ten years down the line that those fasteners fail,” Wright said. “The tree actually crushes beneath the load.”

Instead of off the shelf fasteners, Wright uses custom built ones that are tested hydraulically to withstand increased pressure, made by fellow carpenter and machinist Gary Koontz. They also use custom lag bolts that are generally larger than models available in stores or on the Internet.

The tree houses typically come in three design models – basic, standard and full – although each tree house is unique and customized in its own way. The full design models are typically not intended for kids and require full building permits, take months to complete and can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range. They can also come with everything from custom trim work to full amenities like lights and bathrooms.

Although installing plumbing in a tree house is somewhat involved, Wright said that electricity is both easy and affordable. Even in the smaller models, a lantern by the door and a few receptacles is not unheard of – Wright’s even had requests for places where kids can plug in their laptops, something he said he hears a lot.

“Some kids actually say they want the tree house so they can do their home work out there,” Wright said. “It’s a great selling tactic.”

So far, Wright has only built two full design tree houses that are live-in capable, but there are plenty of other options for an adult treetop retreat, including guest rooms, yoga platforms and poker rooms.

“With lots of windows, to continually remind you that you are off the ground, and up among the trees,” he said.

Wright works in a small group, usually no more than two or three, working with fellow carpenters Koontz and Brian Fisher anywhere from a few days for small jobs like platforms to weeks for larger kid models.

“Four to five guys, it gets too crowded,” Wright said.

They also provide consultations for folks who want to know if their trees are candidates for a new house, though they’ll also design one for you from scratch to suit your particular trees. And for do-it-yourself crowd, Treetop holds tree house building workshops that include consultation, design, construction and repair.

Currently, Treetop Builders has a month long waiting list for new projects, keeping Wright busy from April through September.

“This time of year it’s crazy,” Wright said. “Everyone wants their tree house this summer and they don’t want to wait until fall.”

And the recent economic troubles have only slowed him down somewhat.

“I’m not saying we’re not affected by it but this is our season and we’re doing well,” Wright said. “Most of our customers are in the top 5 to 10 percent of their income, but that’s not always the case.”

Treetop Builders even does charity work, having created tree houses for the Make a Wish Foundation. They also recently donated a tree house and a zip line to the Camp at Old Mill, a non-profit camp outside Coatesville.

To learn more about Treetop Builders and their crew, visit www.treetopbuilders.net.