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When brothers Ron and John Daniels were growing up on a ranch, they built elaborate forts and tree houses to pass the time and earn the envy of family and friends. Nowadays, not much has changed for the Daniels—except that their creations sell from $7,000 to upward of $1 million and can be found in the backyards of homes all over the world.
Once a symbol of childhood imagination and the test of a father's carpentry prowess, tree houses are now becoming a luxury commodity for people of all ages. Custom makers like the Daniels supply adults with a fun space for entertaining, relaxing, and working. With proper insulation, wiring, and plumbing, a professional tree house can even become a livable extra bedroom for guests. For kids, designers can tailor a wonderland of imagination that spares them from the jutting nails, creaky boards, and other safety hazards of a homemade tree house.
Unsure whether the craftsmanship they learned in their youth was enough to fuel an enterprise—but determined to give it a shot—the Daniels brothers began showing a fairly basic tree-house prototype to potential clients in 1998. "We didn't know if it would be a business, but we ended up selling 17 of them in [the first] four days," says John.
Over the next eight years, their company, Daniels Wood Land in Paso Robles, Calif., worked hard to convince homeowners that tree houses could be a professionally designed luxury add-on to a home, like a spa or a remodeled kitchen. Every step along the way, the brothers refined their design, engineering, and construction process, and selectively added new talent to their team.
ENVIRO IMPACT. Once people started to notice the sense of humor and escapism the Daniels duo breathed into their designs—with intricate executions of themes like pirates and castles—sales snowballed. "I thought we had arrived when I sold a $6,000 one," John says, though they were far from hitting a ceiling of four figures. By the end of its first year of business, Daniels Wood Land had sold its first project for more than $100,000.
This year, the company has already overseen 10 six-figure projects, and expects to do about $6 million in revenue. Its efforts, along with those of a handful of other tree house designers that sprouted in the late 1990s, have recently opened the floodgates on an unexpected new luxury market.
The primary interest of many tree-house buyers is environmental impact. "In the tree-house world, people [normally] don't explore alternative materials. They're usually made of super-heavy beams," says Dustin Feider, founder of O2 Sustainability Tree Houses.
Feider's company creates 13-foot-diameter spheres out of a steel or aluminum shell surrounded by a tent-like canvas, which are suspended from branches in a manner that has little detrimental impact on the trees. The "canopy tree houses" can be installed for a fee or shipped as a do-it-yourself kit, and cost around $18,800.
A concern any homeowner should have with an investment in a tree house is how much value they are adding to their home on the whole. Tree houses typically appeal to very individualized tastes, which means they will likely repel many potential buyers but earn great enthusiasm from a select few.
VALUE MATTERS. Given a good amount of creative freedom by one of his clients in McLean, Va., home designer Anthony Wilder built an elaborate tree-house office in 1997 that connected to the raised back door of the house by way of a cable bridge. Because it blended well with the style of the house and added an isolated space for working as well as entertaining, the addition was one of the prime buying motivators for Bob and Patty Finch, who scooped up the property when it went on the market a few years later.
Wilder built the tree house and bridge for about $250,000, and says his client probably recouped most of that investment.
While many tree-house designers focus on providing a space just for adults or just for kids, the TreeHouse Co. in Kilmarnock, Scotland, has experience in designs that cater to all ages. A few years ago, a project in Fife, Scotland, called for a tastefully designed tree house that would appear to grow out of a 500-year-old lightning-struck cedar tree. On top of that challenge, the TreeHouse Co. designers needed to create both a play space for the children as well as an entertaining area for the adults.
They constructed a 45-foot spire with cedar shingles, a copper turret, a side deck, two staircases with multilevel verandas, and a zip slide—all for the enjoyment of the youth. For the parents, they built a deck under the canopy of another nearby tree and adjoined the entire structure with a bridge. As a result, the adults can enjoy their roughly $90,000 investment in the company of friends while keeping a watchful eye on their kids.
FIT FOR A DUCHY. When the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland laid out plans to create the largest public gardens in all of Europe at Alnwick Castle, they commissioned the TreeHouse Co. to create a gigantic tree house that would be home to a 120-seat restaurant, a retail shop, two classrooms, and two private dining rooms. Opened in January, 2005, the Treehouse at Alnwick Gardens is a labyrinth of turrets, treetop walkways, and cavernous spaces. At 6,000 square feet, it's one of the largest wooden tree houses in the world.
The price? $6 million.
Tree houses aren't just for the home either. People seeking an adventurous Swiss Family Robinson-style getaway without the pricey investment can look for hotels among the branches. In the heart of the Aberdares National Park in Kenya, visitors to the Treetops Hotel pay about $80 per night for rooms built atop stilts and entwined with trees. The hotel is a great pit stop for safaris, as numerous observation lounges and balconies look onto the favorite watering holes of nearby rhinos, elephants, lions, and warthogs.
If you want to see life like the Korowai and Kombai natives of Papua, Indonesia, who live in huts built 80-160 feet off the ground for protection, book a night in the Mount Rainer (Wash.) Cedar Creek Treehouse—a retreat that takes visitors to new heights. Designed and constructed by Bill Compher in 1982, the bed and breakfast is a cabin perched 50 feet off the ground in an enormous redwood tree, and includes double bedroom, fully equipped kitchen, and observation room for $250 a night.
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