Closer to the Stars: Luxury Treehouses Grow Up, Defy the Imagination


It was their mutual love of Jivamukti yoga that brought treehouse designer Roderick Romero together with Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. Having met through their shared New York guru, the singer and his wife invited Mr. Romero on a two-week holiday to their villa nestled in the Tuscan hills in Italy. “I was showing Trudie my journal with treehouse designs over an elaborate salad lunch on the terrace one day,” says Mr. Romero. “She said she wanted something special near the lake, a sort of meditation space. I designed an octagonal house around an oak tree, with stained glass windows.”

[treehouses]Alasdair JadineExterior of the ‘Djuren’ treehouse in Germany designed by Andreas Wenning

That was in 2002. Their friend Donna Karan visited the villa and commissioned one of her own for her children’s houses in Oyster Bay and Chestnut Ridge, swiftly followed by Julianne Moore, who, following a dinner with Ms. Karan, wanted one for her children in New York. During filming on the West Coast of America, Val Kilmer then caught the treehouse bug from Ms. Moore, and they quickly became the must-have accessory for burnt out and meditating stars.

The trend has continued to grow, as luxury or designer treehouses are becoming crucial for any smart garden. Whereas previously they were often designed just with children in mind, a new generation of designers is creating wonderful pieces that are for adults’ enjoyment too and can also be works of art in themselves.

One such woman who fell for the aesthetics of the modern treehouse is Satu Macdonald. Although London-based, Ms. Macdonald has a house, which is a shrine to modernist architecture, in Cap d’Antibes in the South of France. “We wanted to have a Pierre Cardin bubble house, but a bubble is the next best thing,” says Ms. Macdonald, referring to one of Tom Chudleigh’s “free spirit spheres”—beautiful round, wooden or fiberglass treehouses designed to be strung between trees, allowing a gentle sway.

Mr. Chudleigh found his calling more than 10 years ago, following a career in boat building, which he says is very similar to treehouse construction. His spheres, constructed ideally in sitka spruce, are painstakingly slow to create—taking three manpower years each—which explains the hefty €114,000 price tag for a wooden treehouse.

Alasdair JadineInterior of the ‘Djuren’ treehouse

“From my point of view, it is biomimicry,” explains Mr. Chudleigh. “It is light but strong and its suspension mimics a spider’s web.”

Apart from the aesthetics there is an added appeal: “Most people never experience the forest canopy. It is surreal, so far removed from anything considered normal, where birds normally dwell.”

Ms. Macdonald has another take: “Everyone thinks it’s a Jules Verne diving bell. It is very unusual.”

Across the Atlantic in Ontario is another example of using treehouses as a form of art. Businessman Gerry Sheff sponsored a competition for a graduate of Toronto University to design and build a treehouse on his property hugging the banks of Lake Muskoka, overlooking an abundant natural deer reserve. Architect graduate Lukasz Kos came up with the winning model. The beautiful slatted construction—made from Douglas fir, with cedar and pine for cladding—is three storys high and wraps organically around four trees. At night, it resembles a giant lantern, illuminating the surrounding forest.

“The question was how to introduce a foreign object into a forest,” says Mr. Kos. “I wanted to allow nature to dictate the footprint. The desire was to be as close to natural surrounding as possible.”

The appeals of treehouses are numerous. For Gail Armand, who commissioned one from Mr. Romero last year for her home in Hawaii, treehouses have an almost spiritual appeal. “I love sitting in the hot tub in the misty rain, kissed by the sky,” says Ms. Armand, describing the outdoor deck of her treehouse and then the warmth that lies indoors. “Feeling the forest all around, cozy in front of the flames of the Jotul stove, with pelting rain coming down, is one of the best ways to enjoy the rain I know. It is sort of an architectural poem.”

Increasingly, as sustainability becomes the buzz word for all things design, treehouses are also being designed with a practical aim in purpose. London-based architects Sybarite have designed a £1 million, environmentally friendly “home in the sky” that sits on stilts. Working together with some local U.K. councils, the house would provide proper year-round elevated living. Because of the cost, the white spaceship-like treehouse is at concept level now. However, once one is built, the cost per unit would drop considerably (to around £300,000). Each house is designed to have five bedrooms and be fully self-sufficient—only needing a water supply and plug. A built-in battery is charged using wind power.

Lukasz Kos‘4treehouse’ by architect graduate Lukasz Kos in Ontario

For more accessible flights of fancy, Andreas Wenning has designed some of the most beautiful modern treehouses, mostly in his native Germany and other European countries such as the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

His career came about in 2003, when he retreated to the countryside home of some friends. “I wanted somewhere where I could enjoy a coffee and the light,” says Mr. Wenning. From there, demands for commissions came his way, and he has built everything from meditation treehouses in Hungary and outside Rome, to his most recent project: a treehouse on the river Spree for a client in Berlin, integrated into a weeping willow, that is for “meeting friends, writing and pleasure,” he says.

Often treehouses are built around special, significant trees and with clients’ specifications in mind. His Pearhouse treehouse, which was built around a favorite tree of the German man who commissioned it, was designed with another purpose in mind—to hit golf balls off its terrace.

There is an added existential element to the eternal appeal of treehouses. “You are not on the ground and not in the air,” explains Mr. Wenning. “You are somewhere in between.”

For others, it is merely the chance to indulge in a bit of luxurious living. The threat of theft or vandalism remains low, as most of these upscale treehouses are contained in well-secured properties or sprawling estates, away from prying eyes.

Sean Readings, an oil trader from Essex, U.K. recently had a treehouse built that also had a hot tub.

“Originally, it was just going to be a treehouse,” says Mr. Readings. “Then we went wild. We added a spiral staircase, a woodburner, and scramble nets, zip wire and a fireman’s pole for the kids. Then we thought, how about a cedar hot tub.”

For Mr. Readings and his family, it is about good old-fashioned escape: “It is like camping but being at home,” he says. “We shut the house, set the TV up, get some bean bags and light a fire, then settle down on the verandah with a glass of wine, hidden in the forest.”

As Simon Payne, who runs Blue Forest, the company which built the treehouse, says: “It is all about the excitement. It goes back to when we were children, and being able to enjoy that same adventure.”

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