Top-Notch Retreat

A couple builds a little get-away in the tree tops.

Photography by Curtis Comeau

What is it about being in tiny, unconventional spaces that sparks thrills like no other? Whether it’s a tent, an oversize cardboard box, or even a blanket held up with two sticks, there’s something titillating about being squirreled away in a little fort. It’s even better when said fort is suspended in the treetops with the potential to be as suitable for grown-ups as it is for kids.

The tree house nestled among branches in David and Celine Richter’s backyard was built for their five-year-old daughter, Anya, but this is not your average childhood fort. “We’ve had neighbours come over and say, ‘That’s not a tree house; that’s a house in a tree,'” says David Richter, owner of D. Richter Renos Ltd. “It’s basically built the exact same way as a house, just on a smaller scale.”

This charming little “house” looks like it sprung to life from the pages of a storybook with its front porch, curved staircase, scalloped trim at the roofline and window boxes filled with flowers. The three windows can be opened to let in the fresh summer breeze, and the interior is insulated, drywalled, painted and outfitted with electricity and heating, making this tree house useable year-round. It even has vinyl siding to protect it against the elements. 

From the pot lights in the ceiling to the posh draperies and comfy furnishings, the space feels more like a cozy finished cottage than the common conception of a tree house. But the most impressive interior features are the trees themselves; the thick, twisting branch that curves through the corner of one side, and the solid trunk that pushes straight up through the floor and out the roof on the opposite side. 

Though the Richters built theirs in trees, they say it’s not necessary. “You don’t need any trees because you can build it on posts, kind of the same way you’d do fence posts, and then build the tree house on top of that.” Of course, it’s a lot more authentic if your tree house somehow involves actual trees, like the Richters’, but ironically (if not surprisingly) it was the trees that were the roots of arising complications.

“To get the walls and the roof around the trees took lots of custom cuts using my jigsaw,” explains Richter. The challenge was accommodating the trees so they could be exposed through the interior while keeping the tree house structurally sound. “I was very happy when the framing was done because the rest of it was easy after that.”

The less he had to disturb the trees, the better, so the only place where the house is attached to them is at the bottom – and this setup is expected to become stronger as the trees grow around the fasteners. Richter explains, “Because they’re all about the same age, they should grow simultaneously and the tree house should stay level as they grow.”

Why did the couple put so much work into a tree house? “I think childhood needs a bit of magic,” says Celine Richter. Coincidentally, this very thing has been known to benefit couples, too. Sure, they use their miniature abode to have picnics and play board games with their daughter. But, for Celine, the opportunity for date night in the treetops has not gone unnoticed. 

Her husband admits that when he decided to embark on this project, it wasn’t entirely selfless. “This was always something I wished I had as a kid, and I now have the talent to do it,” he says. “When we were young, my brothers and I used to build tree houses out of scraps from my dad’s job sites [his dad was a builder and a carpenter]. They never looked like this,” he says with a laugh, “and I always wanted them to look like this.”

Thankfully, it’s never too late to enjoy a tree house. In fact, why not put your kid to bed, grab two glasses of wine and hit the tree house for a little off-duty unwinding? And there’s no rule that says you need kids at all to enjoy a tree house; think of it as a chic penthouse or a Scotch-and-cigar bar in the sky and you’ll start to see the possibilities …

But before you get too excited, there’s another potential challenge to get around besides the trees: Building permits. “City bylaw states that you can only use 40 per cent of your lot for fixed buildings (a maximum of 28 per cent for the main house and 12 per cent for adjoining buildings), so you should contact the City to see if you require a building permit,” advises Richter. This means that if you already have a shed or a greenhouse, it might be taking up some of that 40 per cent allowance if it’s considered a permanent structure – and it will be if it sits on a concrete pad or is otherwise immovable. If it’s on skids, it’s not permanent because it can be moved.

But, even though a tree house is immoveable, it may not be deemed permanent because it doesn’t have a foundation. “There’s a technicality there,” says Richter, “but it’s always good to check before you build.” City rules and regulations are always changing, and it’s easier (and less costly) to get the permit than be subject to inspection after the fact. “And if you’re running electrical, that’s something else that will need to be passed,” he offers.

Richter’s had so many requests to build tree houses for others that he’s decided to make it an official offering in his repertoire of high-end renovations. A six-by-10-foot tree house with six-foot-high ceilings would take about three weeks to complete and the cost would be in the $6,000 range (going up from there depending on how far you let your imagination run). “It’s fun and I enjoy it,” says Richter. “It makes me feel like a kid again.”

For kids, a tree house is a stronghold – a fortress of fancy that safeguards the wonders of childhood and nourishes their imaginations. For everyone else, a tree house is a fleeting escape from the responsibilities of adulthood; it’s a reprieve where the playfulness of youth whispers to you as softly as the breeze upon its leaves.

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