Did you ever play in a tree house as a kid? Chances are either you did, or you wanted to. Tree houses seem to occupy a special niche in our collective psyche, a place for kids to play but also, for some adults, an energizing retreat that gets us back to a natural surrounding.
Recently I conversed with a Portland designer, Schuyler Silva, whose company, Elevated Living, specializes in tree house design.
Q: Where are you from originally and, if you're from someplace else, how did you get to Portland? What led you to tree house design?
A: I grew up in Northeast Portland and attended Grant High School. At 18, I went off to college and studied technical theater at Southern Oregon University. After getting my degree, I didn't know what to do, so I decided to continue my education in theater. I then went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2008, I received my master's in Scenic Technology.
As a technical director, I was always asked to build things that had previously never existed. For example, for my thesis, I had to build a 4,500 gallon pool on stage below a bridge that spanned 32' and was only 9" thick. Being a Technical Director makes you think in new and inventive ways to make an end product successful.
That sounds like a good training for tree house designing. Were they something you were always attracted to, or something you wanted to design differently?
I've always like tree houses, but it seems that about half of them are supported by the ground. I didn't want that. I also didn't want obtrusive supports. This would not meld with the modern design I was looking for. So I looked into various ways of suspending the tree house.
The first idea I had was aircraft cable. After going though a few iterations of that, I chose rods. These are very popular in modern architecture and they are clean and simple. At first, I had some complicated bracket to attach them to, then, I thought, why not go through the tree? I looked into it a little further, figured out a way in which they would not hit each other in the tree, and found out it would not damage the tree. In fact, another technical director told me of an outdoor theater that would drill holes in trees, pass pipe through them, and hang lights from them. The trees wouldn't mind and just grow around the pipes.
What is it about tree houses that compels you to build them and makes you attracted to the form? Did you have a tree house as a kid?
I never had an official tree house, but I did have a two-story playhouse that my dad built. My brother and I loved that thing. But what really inspired me was a conversation I had with a long time friend, Devin Zoller, back in 2006. We were sitting around talking about how we would both love to own our own business and do something that we were really passionate about. We had done some home renovation together and both shared a passion for architecture and modern building, and as though a light bulb went off in my head, I blurted out, "Tree houses!" From then, we started sketching, researching, planning, etc. In 2009, I was finally able to build my first tree house in SW Portland.
Are there certain misconceptions about the dwellings you create? Do people sometimes think of them as only for kids when in reality tree houses can be more?
When walking around, I get excited when I see that someone built their children a tree house, but usually it is very small and doesn't seem very safe at all. I even saw a warning sign on one recently that said, "play at your own risk." Well, I want to build tree houses that are not only for kids, but for adults too. As an adult, I would love to put some yard furniture up there, kick back, have a beer, and enjoy the view.
When I started working on tree houses, I only wanted to build high-end dwellings that happened to be in a tree. I figured that I couldn't start big, so I am starting small. At this time, The Classic model that we do with Elevated Living is a 12x12-foot tree house that can be used as a play structure for kids. It can also be used as a deck for adults to entertain on. It's really up to the individual and what they want out of it. That is one great aspect about my design; that it can be whatever you want it to be. I don't want to exclude anyone from these structures because they should be enjoyed by everyone.
In the future, I plan on having even larger tree houses that are fully enclosed and have additional features such as electricity and plumbing. A guest house, if you will. With Elevated Living, you can get both a play structure for kids and a parents retreat.
What are some of the key factors in constructing a tree house that assure it is both structurally sound and doesn't harm the host tree?
The structure of the tree house itself conforms to standard construction practices. It uses mostly off-the-shelf parts and materials. I build it to code so that the owner and I can feel confident in its structural integrity. As for the suspension of the tree house, there are only eight connection points to the tree and they never go over one inch each. Because I am using steel rods, this gives me a huge advantage to keep the interaction with the tree to a minimum. The structure is also attached not only at the top (which takes almost all of the load), but at the bottom as well. This keeps the structure from twisting and moving around the tree. When the tree moves, so does the structure. There is one custom bracket for suspending the tree house that I took to a structural engineer to have analyzed. I now have the engineering calculations for that piece of hardware and know that it will not fail.
How far do you see tree houses potentially going in terms of their appeal and spread? Could this someday be something that people are making permanent residences out of on a wide scale?
My personal vision for Elevated Living is to build a 24 x 24-foot guest house with a 6-foot deck on one side, with full plumbing, electrical, bathroom, kitchenette, and bedroom. These can be purchased individually or in groups for vacation areas. There is already a tree house resort in southern Oregon, so it is proved to work. Just imagine renting a cabin at a ski resort that you can ski-in and ski-out, have a wood stove, is right on the slopes, and is in a tree. To me, that would be heavenly.
Any favorite personal tree house memories?
Since I never had a tree house as a kid, I didn't have my first interaction with a tree house until last year when I installed my first one. I know this sounds strange, but the house I built at age 26 was my first tree house experience and the elation when it was completed was wonderful. My wife, my father, and my best friends had helped me install it. We all went up there, watched the sun set, and drank a beer. Now that is a great memory.