Pete Nelson’s treehouses may evoke a childlike sense of wonder, but they are most decidedly not for kids. Nelson, who has been designing and building treehouses for 25 years, creates the sort of romantic, cool treehouse that you’d dream of stumbling upon in the woods, and then holing up in for days (or weeks) — drinking whiskey and writing the next great American novel. They’re elegant and rustic all at once.
“I’m all about grownup treehouses,“ Nelson says. His houses may be minimalistic in terms of size, but his designs are a beautiful blend of natural elements and the modern touches of luxury resort cabins.Still, he doesn’t let the luxury aspect distract from the main goal — to build homes that feel at one with the woods that surround them.
“The idea,” Nelson continues, “which is really a difficult balance, is to blend in as much as you can. Out here with these magnificent trees, trying to blend in to nature is the first major effort when you’re drawing. When you think that it’s really two or three hundred square feet up into a tree, it’s hard to hide it. But I always try to make sure that the tree is taking center stage. When you’re headed out into the woods, you hopefully have a little mystery to it. You’re going to be having to search for it a little bit.”
Nelson’s houses may be for adults, but kids can’t help but be drawn to his designs. Especially with a show about the company’s work building treehouses, Treehouse Masters, airing on Animal Planet.
“I have a demographic (of fans) that skews to the nine and twelve year olds,” Nelson says with a laugh. He thinks it’s great. Nelson loves that kids are into his show, and learning how cool it is to build and create structures through Treehouse Masters. It’s the kind of thing he would have also been totally into when he was young. Nelson has always been fascinated with building and how things go together.
“I just gravitated towards design as a kid,” he says. “My doodles, I can remember as early as third and fourth grade, drawing little houses that I liked.” Even as a smaller child, Nelson remembers a Richard Scarry book called, “What Do People Do All Day?” and being obsessed with the section about building. He’d pick out every tiny aspect of construction, and study it. “You could see it all as a kid,” he says. “You’ve got the studs, you’ve got the floor, you’ve got the joists, you’ve got the rafters, and when I was a kid paying attention to it, that was when I really started to say, ‘Well, I could build this stuff.’”
It was just always a given, a natural thing to Nelson that he was a builder. Design of his houses is important, but it’s the simplicity of being a builder that feels like part of his DNA.
“I call myself a builder first and foremost that loves design and architecture,” he says. “Building is how it all began, and now I have the privilege of working with some really amazing people, and creating these very small, digestible size projects in the trees.”
Nelson has been creating his masterpieces for over 25 years, but his business really started to take off in 2011 when Animal Planet approached him about a show chronicling his work. The show, he says, came along at just the right time. When the economy started to crash, and the country went into a recession, things were rough on the Nelsons. They had just created a hotel made entirely of treehouses called Treehouse Point Hotel in Washington, but were hurting a bit for business. He had been hesitant in the past about getting in bed with reality TV.
“What I’d seen was really tawdry stuff with the drama,” he says. “And it’s like, “That’s not us.” But Animal Planet wasn’t interested in creating fake situations or drama, he says. And so it was the perfect fit.
“When Animal Planet called, they promised that they would represent us in the sort of happy spirit that we want to share,” he says. “And we really feel so grateful, all of us, each one of us as carpenters and everybody who helps us. We’re still pinching ourselves.” His company really does feel like a family, and so he’s glad to have found an outlet that represents them accurately. “We’re immersed in this, and it really is a happy family,” he says. “So the TV show as it came along was an extraordinary blessing.” He’s also glad to have started the show on the ground floor of the industry because treehouse building has basically exploded over the last several years.
“What was kind of limping along there has become a real industry,” he says. “I don’t know how many treehouse builders are in the industry now, but Geez, it’s unreal. It feels like this show has inspired a lot of people to get out there, and that’s exactly the mission that we had to start all this.”
The show is a lot of fun to do, Nelson says. But it’s also a hectic, crazy schedule. Except for things like electrical and plumbing (which they usually outsource locally), he and his team really do build everything themselves, and they usually have only three weeks to do so. “We do it very quickly,” he says. “We prefabricate as much as we can in the shop here in Fall City. We’ll build cabinetry and furnishings, bunk beds, what have you. As much as we can possibly build in the shop, we will. But out in the field we really, truly only have that three weeks to build it.”
So they have three weeks to build the houses which (as with any TV show) are often increasingly extravagant and complex.
“We’re doing 600 square foot treehouses now,” Nelson says. “And there’s kitchens and bathrooms and you go, “Oh my God”, but as a carpenter/designer, that to me is fun.”
People often want fireplaces too, Nelson says. Though probably his favorite luxury to design is the perfect outdoor shower. All of it comes back to creating something, no matter how modern, that feels like it belongs in its spot, and allows the owner to connect with nature. Otherwise, what would be the point? So things like windows, he says, are absolutely a critical part of the design of any house.
“When you’re up in a tree, it’s absolutely imperative that you get windows that not only look out, but look at the tree itself, because the last thing you want to do is forget that you’re in a tree,” he says. “Deck space is important too.”
As we approach the next season of Treehouse Masters, Nelson says we’re in for some very exciting new projects. Some of his favorite houses that he’s ever done will be on it. Like a house in the double premiere episode that he built in Comfort, Texas.
“It’s just such a beautiful area,” he says enthusiastically, “and we had great clients and they really wanted to do something that felt like the Wild West. We had two separate buildings, I call them pods, two separate pods in five very beautiful, mature oak trees that stretched up quite tall for oaks, and looked out over a little arroyo. If I was going to picture a treehouse that’s a little over the top, this would be one. It was so fun.”
It’s a pretty fun job, not only getting to do the building that Nelson loves, but to make people’s dreams come true. The reactions to the finished tree houses, are all real, he says, and it’s his favorite part of the job. “That first reaction of the clients, when they look up…that is probably the most gratifying thing. The whole deal is to make people happy.”