There are plenty of dads who have built tree houses for their children. There are even a fair number of professional carpenters who have taken on such jobs at the request of dads who would prefer not to hit their thumbs with hammers while clinging to tree branches. What’s not so common are examples of trained, skilled, certified arborists who get into the tree house business.
Jonathan Fairoaks has followed the uncommon path for four decades now, combining tree care and tree house construction. Fairoaks operates Living Tree, LLC, based in Pennsylvania. He spends winters living in a tree house he built in the warmer climate of California, and he travels the country and the world year-round building tree houses.
It was his early love of tree houses that drew him to the tree care profession, and the skills he’s developed as a certified arborist have helped him further his knowledge of tree house construction. “I built my first tree house when I was 8 years old, and I’ve been building them ever since,” he explains. After studying in college under renowned tree care expert Dr. Richard Davis at UC Davis in California, Fairoaks obtained his certification and began his career as an arborist. In the beginning, he focused mainly on tree care work, but with every tree house he built, word spread of his special skills. “People started asking if I could build them one,” Fairoaks recalls. “I’ve always had a tree house in my life, I just never planned on building them professionally.”
Yet that’s exactly what has transpired, as Fairoaks has built a career as a master tree house builder. His expertise as an arborist has helped him to stand out in the field. “It’s a specialty trade, there just aren’t that many tree houses to build,” he says of the niche profession. “If you don’t know tree biology, you can get into a lot of trouble. I allow the tree to design the tree house. If you try to force something into a tree that it’s not able to support, you can create a lot of problems. Being an arborist, I’m able to take trees that might not otherwise be suitable for a tree house and, by using cabling and bracing and other methods, make it so the tree can support a tree house.”
While few tree house builders have an arboriculture background, “The good ones are smart enough to have a certified arborist come in and evaluate the tree and help them out,” says Fairoaks. Other builders make it up as they go along. “A lot of them use posts; they’ll build a ‘stilt house’ around a tree. I don’t really consider that a tree house, but to each their own,” he explains. “We can post down, of course, and use the tree as a partial support, but tree house purists feel strongly that a true tree house must be entirely in the tree.”
Fairoaks typically works with two assistants, and uses another company on especially big projects. “If we’re a long way from home and the customer wants the tree house wired [for electricity] or plumbed, we’ll subcontract those jobs to local contractors.”
The attraction people seem to have for tree houses is the best marketing tool there is, says Fairoaks. “Many times we’ll get into a neighborhood and people will stop by to see what we’re doing, and before long, we’re building another tree house down the block, or another one across town. Tree houses just attract attention.”
Fairoaks asks potential customers to first send him photos of the tree (or trees) they’re thinking of using, with a person standing next to the tree for scale. A free phone consultation comes next, and, if the customer decides to go ahead with the project, they send a deposit and the process begins in earnest. “I then send them some sketches of what I’m thinking about building, as well as a materials list. Once they have the materials delivered, we pack up our truck, drive to the site and usually start work the same day.”
Each tree house construction project begins with tree care. “We do tree preparation, such as root crown clearing, deep root feeding, mulching,” Fairoaks explains. It then typically takes two to three days to build the platform, which will support the tree house. That work is done in the tree using climbing ropes. “On maybe two jobs we’ve used a lift, but most of them we can work out pretty well without the lift equipment,” says Fairoaks.
While he usually starts with a general style in mind, many times the final design of the tree house evolves during the construction process. “What I usually tell people is to let us build a platform. Then, we can go up on the platform, put down some scrap wood and put down a footprint for the tree house and talk about what style we want, what direction we want it to face and so on,” Fairoaks explains. “It’s much easier to make plans once the platform is up, because then people can walk around, and we can try different layouts: horseshoe-shaped decks; L-shaped decks; deck-in-the-front, tree house in the back; deck-in-the-back, tree house in the front; tree coming up through the front or middle. There are a lot of different possibilities.”
Fairoaks says that some clients hire an architect to draw up plans for the tree house, and this can complicate the process. “Sometimes, an architect designs a tree house that has nothing to do in reality with what the tree can support,” he explains.
To help ensure the tree house is built on a strong “foundation,” Fairoaks generally tries to incorporate “as many trees as possible” into his tree houses, rather than placing the load on a lone tree. Over the years, new tools and techniques have found their way into the tree house construction field. For example, says Fairoaks, “We now have something called an ‘artificial limb’ that can be put into a tree that can support about 8,000 pounds. It’s a 1.25-inch bolt, with a 3-inch shoulder. The shoulder sits into the heartwood and lends strength by keeping the bolt from failing. We’re able to support a lot more weight from a single point.”
Fairoaks’ tree houses typically cost between $6,000 and $30,000, but some can be a bit more extravagant. “One tree house we built cost $650,000,” he recalls. Many of the tree houses are for families, but Fairoaks says he has been getting more and more requests from those who own vacation property and want to install a tree house on the land. “Rather than pull in an R.V. or build a cabin, they’ll have us build a tree house. For access, we’ll either have stairs that they can pull up for security, or a ladder that they can take away and lock up when they leave. It’s a lot easier to secure a tree house than a cabin on the ground,” Fairoaks points out.
Fairoaks protects himself, as well. “Before each job, I have the homeowner sign a release form saying that they will look into permitting requirements and, if permitting is required, that they’ll take care of it. Every place is different. Los Angeles, for example, actually has written laws prohibiting tree houses. Most municipalities, though, are tree house-friendly. They don’t have any codes, as long as you keep it reasonable.” (A bigger problem than permitting can be complaints from neighbors. “Whether it’s jealousy or privacy issues, who knows, but I always tell people to check with their neighbors first before building a tree house,” he advises.)
He also carries significant liability insurance and has customers sign a release stating that they are responsible for the tree house and its maintenance once it has been completed. “Like anything else you build, tree houses require maintenance,” says Fairoaks. One part of that maintenance is to ensure that the tree always has sufficient room for growth. “The amount of room we leave around the tree depends on whether it’s a young tree or a mature tree, but all the tree houses we build are designed so that they can be trimmed back as the tree grows.”
Fairoaks serves on the board of directors of the World Tree House Association. The group’s annual meetings give tree house builders a chance to share ideas and talk about their shared passion. “We have different competitions and classes on various aspects of tree house building — it’s a great event, and a good place to learn about tree houses.”