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Architectural Thoughts on: Treehouses

This month, ARCHIPHONIC’s Adam M considers the place of the treehouse and how a staple of youth has fed into the architecture of adulthood.

Born from our naive childhood desires, treehouses have always been a customary practice during our youth. Perhaps it is the contrast to our homes, providing privacy or the removal from the sociological norm, with hidden recesses to stash comic books or simply to hide? Perhaps it is even the act of building something that sits above the ground, removed from our traditional context?

The genesis of the idea could be in the ‘primitive hut’, theorised by Marc-Antoine Laugier in his paper ‘The Essay on Architecture’. First published in 1753, he considers the human need for shelter. During a period of ornamentation, the Baroque movement, he argued for the reconsideration of the simple hut. He discusses the qualities of this architecture: column, entablature (supportive member), pediment (top member), floors, and openings. Although we see this as much in treehouse as we do in the Empire State Building, maybe it is our desire to create a ‘primitive hut’ that pushes us to create treehouses?

The idea of privacy is seen strongly in ‘Mirrorcube’ by Tham & Videgård Arkitekter (pictured), set in Harads, Sweden. Hanging four meters above ground, supported only by members hugging the tree, the structure is clad in mirrored glass to reflect its surroundings and the sky. Its windows give a 360-degree view whilst its construction makes use of high tech materials and products used when exploring remote places in harsh climates. It contains a living space, double bed, bathroom, and a roof terrace while entry is gained from a rope bridge connected to the next tree. Maybe this isn’t enough? Maybe it’s too high-tech to really feel at one with nature whilst not having the longevity a house should have.

‘Dursely Treehouse’, designed by Millar Howard Workshop (pictured), is a 200-square-metre property 40ft in the air. Spending over £355,000 to achieve their goal, the clients were left with a four-bed home in a previously forgotten and neglected half acre of woodland. The site had a sentimentality for the client as he used to peek upon the area through a fence when he was growing up.

The problem in this instance was building a home where there were many tree protection orders, but so long as the roots were not damaged, the solution was a treehouse. This resulted in a property that is supported with long screw piles and a steel frame. Clad in larch, it blends in with its context and has panoramic views to take in all of its surroundings. There are no comforts lost here. This is a treehouse where a family can live among the natural environment, be protected from the elements and still maintain privacy.

However, there is a treehouse that takes the principle even further Notably one from the RIBA House of the Year Award 2017 long list, ‘Woodman’s Tree House’ by Brownie Ernst and Marks (pictured). Set in an area of outstanding natural beauty in Dorset, it demonstrates how there is a middle ground relating to comfort and the relationship with the tree. Supported in a similar way to Dursely Treehouse, the materiality of timber is seen throughout, with a contrast of copper and soft furnishings to complete the arrangement.

It includes a bespoke kitchen, copper bathtub, leather armchairs, king size bed, wood burning stove, open-air shower, wood fired oven, open-air hot tub, and private sauna. A floor-window looks over a stream, the bathtub and kitchen both have views through the trees, and a skylight looks at leaves blowing in the wind. It has a modern bathroom, living areas and a flushing toilet with hot running water. It truly is an exemplar of treehouse living and represents all facets of the ‘Primitive Hut’, both ‘tree’ and ‘house’ in that order, neither compromised by the other.