With elaborate treehouses on the rise, they're still a labor of love

With zip lines, slides and working electricity, these aren't your average treehouses.

Lexi, Lucas and Devin Goodman wander up the two-tier staircase and through a trapdoor, revealing the inside of a child's dream room. The walls are painted white, their names in red, yellow and blue letters with several of their handprints to match. And in the middle of the room is the trunk of a large oak tree.

It's their very own treehouse — and it's far more involved than a few pieces of wood nailed to some branches. With the intricate design of the 12-foot-high octagon that floats on wooden beams, it's hard to believe that it all started with their father's sketch on a paper napkin.

Barrett Goodman, 45, of Sparks, decided to build the treehouse after remembering his own as a child.

"I enjoyed it when I was growing up," he said. "I decided we'd build it all together."

But treehouses these days aren't what they were when Goodman was a kid.

With TV shows like Animal Planet's "Treehouse Masters" and DIY Network's "The Treehouse Guys," there has been an increase in treehouse building within the past five years, said Tanya Breck, a designer and project manager at Tree Top Builders Inc. in Pennsylvania. And they're not just a DIY project anymore.

People are turning to companies like Tree Top Builders to help them create elaborate backyard structures, with costs ranging from $10,000 to close to $100,000 for large-scale treehouses with plumbing and electricity.

Though the newest trend is building treehouses for guest or rental use (think Airbnb), Breck said that many people are looking to build treehouses for their children and family.

Kids' paradise

That's what Goodman was hoping to achieve when he reached out to Tree Top Builders and its sister company, Treehouse Supplies, in 2010 after doing a rough sketch of his intended design on a napkin.

Over the course of four months and with the help of a couple of builders, the Goodman family built their dream treehouse, with stained wood, a recycled plastic shingle roof, five screened windows, two working doorbells, electrical outlets, a front door, a custom cedar handrail, and two hammocks on the inside. Outside, there's a tire swing and a "milk and cookie" zip line — a bucket on a set of wires used to transport treats from their home's back deck to the treetop dwelling.

Inside, three painted hard hats are nailed to the wall, a testament to the children's involvement in this labor of love.

"We just like to hang out," said Lexi, 10, while sitting in a hammock inside the treehouse. "And sometimes we'll bring snacks."

Sometimes there are bugs, 8-year-old Lucas, said, and Devin, 14, notes that they've seen squirrels. But Goodman said he does his best to clean out the critters and keep up with maintenance, which has been minimal. So far, only the rope railings on the stairs have needed to be replaced, he said.

Goodman said the treehouse, which cost between $20,000 and $25,000, was a worthwhile investment. (In Breck's experience with Tree Top Builders, this is around the average amount people spend when building a treehouse.)

The kids "use it every time a new friend comes over," Goodman said. "That's when it's really the coolest thing in the world."

But the process wasn't without hiccups. Just a week before work started, the tree Goodman was looking to use fell to the ground. Builders had to assess another tree to see if it could support the project.

"Based on the diameter of the tree, they know how many bolts can penetrate the tree," Goodman said. "You can't just drive nuts and bolts into a tree. That will kill it."

Luckily, the tree that was used has remained sturdy for nearly six years.

"It's weathered a couple of hurricanes, and it does just fine," Goodman said. "It was a lot of fun to build with the kids. It's something they certainly won't forget."

'Prime ... for imagination'

The treehouse that Ken Kinard, 45, and his family built at their former home in Lutherville seven years ago was also a family bonding experience.

Kinard's son Benjamin, who was 6 at the time, wanted to learn more about architecture. So the family, which now lives in Hunt Valley, decided to do so by constructing a treehouse.

With the help of local architect Jack Leonard — and friends — they built an elaborate structure complete with hammocks, a yellow slide, bright electrical tube lights lining the inside, and functioning electrical outlets.

"Benjamin was kind of the visionary, and then Jack was the architect and then we all built with the help of not only the family but [also] friends doing it all together," Kinard said.

The house was constructed using two large trees in the backyard, linking one tree to the other via a wooden bridge platform. One tree supports the airy treehouse, which is accessible by rope ladder, among other entry methods. It has numerous amenities, including a bucket pulley system and rope and wooden railings.

It took the family nearly three years working on the weekends and in their spare time to build the treehouse, Kinard said.

The neighborhood christened the treehouse with a giant water battle complete with squirt guns, hoses and water bazookas. Summertime sleepovers followed soon after.

"It's a prime spot for imagination," Kinard said.

The Kinards said goodbye to the treehouse when they sold their home in 2012. But Kinard said the backyard structure was a major selling point.

"It was one of the reasons why I got multiple offers," he said. "Who wouldn't want such a treehouse? It was the envy of the neighborhood children."

Now the treehouse — along with the home, which has since been sold twice — belongs to Phirun Mindel, 38, her husband and sons, Matthew, 3, and Harrison, 5. They moved in in September and have made use of the treehouse in the warmer months, including a Halloween-themed birthday party for Harrison in October.

"It was a draw for us," Mindel said. "Just having it in the backyard. It was appealing for the kids. ... It's was a draw for them to be outside. It's something for them to play with and do. They use it a lot."

This treehouse has bugs, according to Harrison, but "if you don't bother them, then they won't bother you," he yelled before sliding down the spiral slide one recent evening.

Back to basics

But in this era of fancy treehouses, some still like to take the simple route.

David Plunkert, 50, a Cockeysville graphic designer, built his treehouse on his own.

Looking at the three scraggly locust trees sitting in his front yard nearly seven years ago, Plunkert felt he had two options: Chop them down or build a treehouse.

"I always wanted a treehouse when I was younger. It's sort of fulfilled that dream," he said.

After reading a how-to book on building treehouses, Plunkert decided to make one for his family of five, enlisting the help of his eldest daughter, now 17, and his twin son and daughter, now 11.

In three or four weekends, spending just a couple of hours a day and $300 on materials, the project was complete.

He salvaged materials from his design studio and different places around town, finding tin for the roof and barn-red siding. He bought wooden planks and began to build, mounting the treehouse six feet off the ground and balancing it on the three trunks and a wooden post. The toughest part was climbing up high enough to install the roof, Plunkert said.

Later came the accessories: a rope ladder made of oak and nylon, a bucket pulley system, and decorative knickknacks, including a sign that reads "ENTRANCE" and galvanized flower pots from IKEA. Rusted metal pieces he found on his property added a rustic, rural ambience to the treehouse. For a quirky touch, a mold once used to create baby doll heads (a flea market find) sits on a post outside the entrance.

The treehouse, which resembles a barn, would become an imaginary ship, a playhouse and a reading nook for his children. Even though Plunkert doesn't use it much himself, it was the process and challenges that he enjoyed more than anything.

"Be ready to try some new things," he advised those looking to build a treehouse of their own. "I think that the cool part is adapting the building to suit the tree or trees you want to put it in. And if you're building it with kids in mind, try to make it a family project."

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