Having a tree house is something almost every child dreams of. If your yard has a big enough tree, you can make that dream a reality for your kids with a summer DIY project. As with any construction project, a little pre-planning goes a very long way. But with a simple design and some basic materials and tools, you can give your kids a backyard retreat they can enjoy for years.
Tree house designs are best kept simple. A roof, walls, and a way to get up are all that's needed; anything else is a luxury. If you have the inclination and the skills to realize something more elaborate, let your imagination run wild. Pull up staircases and rope bridges, windows that open, and a balcony will all be put to good use. But kids will work with what you give them. It's the sense of privacy and ownership that's of value to them, not the curb appeal.
Although you could theoretically build a tree house in almost any good-sized tree, certain qualities will make it easier to build and safer for kids to play in. You'll want it to be close enough to your main house to keep a general eye on things, but far enough away that kids will feel they have privacy. The tree needs to be sturdy with several branches that have a more horizontal orientation, or that form a natural crux. Abundant greenery is desirable, but not essential. The tree needs to be healthy enough to withstand construction.
If kids are old enough, get them working on at least some aspects of the build. Younger ones can contribute to design, envisioning what features they want. It will be a teachable moment to explain the ramifications of each design decision. Kids old enough to swing a hammer can help with the actual construction: hammering nails, measuring (but perhaps not cutting) the wood, holding components in place. Your kids will not only be happy for a new place to play, but they can also feel proud of their contributions to the project.
A platform to support the tree house resembles any backyard deck. Use weather-treated 2x4s and ensuret the deck is braced properly to distribute the weight of the house (and its occupants) evenly. Hardware should be stainless steel, especially for use on any part that requires bolting into the tree itself to ensure the tree is not injured. Try to work around existing branches rather than lopping them off. A tree house will stress a tree, but you don't want to kill it.
The weather tightness of your tree house is a consideration, even if it is only intended to be used during warmer months. Install a proper roof with a certain amount of insulation and shingles to keep the weather out, or jerry-rig a waterproof tarp. The choice will depend on your skill level and how casual the structure is meant to be. As long as the kids have a dry-ish place to hang out when it rains, it will be just fine.
Once the basics are in place, consider adding some small but fun details. For example, install a simple pulley system for hauling treasures up and down the tree. If the setting and your construction skills permit, a suspension bridge of short wood planks and rope can be secured in order to reach the front door. Add colorful window shutters for both privacy and a fun design touch. Let your kids decorate the interior with their own art, old furniture, or battery-powered lights that are safe for outdoor use.
Safety should always come first when it comes to both the construction and overall design of your tree house. Calculate weight loads to determine how many kids can safely be in the house at one time, and install safety railings around decking and bridges. If there's a ladder, make sure it's secure and that kids know how to use it correctly. Most builders don't go higher than 9 feet for a tree house, but reach out to construction experts to determine the right height and design for your tree house project.
Building a tree house with a hand saw, tape measure, hammer, and nails is absolutely do-able, but a jig saw, nail driver, and other construction tools will get the job done faster. If your kids are helping with the build, consider keeping it simple. They'll learn more about the basics of woodworking and construction without newer technologies clouding their view.
Tree houses aren't meant to last forever. Expect approximately a 5-year life span, after which time you may need to re-build. Children do tend to outgrow tree houses, so you may need to wait for a new generation to come along before building a new one. For the duration of its lifespan, keep your tree house in good repair by replacing rotten boards, re-roofing, and ensuring everything is still securely in place. When you do finally take it down, leave stainless steels bolts in the tree (they're harmless) or fill holes with wooden plugs to prevent rot.
Even if your tree house doesn't last forever, memories of it can. Try to document the building of the tree house, and the kids using it for future reference and reminiscing together. You could even enlist the kids themselves to create a folder of painted pictures, sketches, diaries, videos, and photographs of time spent in their magical retreat. It could a beautiful artifact for generations of family members to enjoy.
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