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Columbia family takes revitalization to new heights with treehouse

Alex Reid works from a pine building nestled between two sycamore trees in the sloping backyard of his home

Alex Reid was outgrowing his home office.

The military and police toughbook computers he refurbishes were piling up, and work life was seeping into the free time he wanted to spend with his family.

To make room for his expanding business, it looked as if he would have to rent out some office space – but that meant a commute, a monthly rent payment and less flexibility watching his young children.

Then came option B: build a treehouse.

Today, Reid works from a pine building nestled between two sycamore trees in the sloping backyard of his home in Columbia's Oakland Mills neighborhood.

His desk faces a wall of windows looking out over a patch of woods, a stream and Route 29 in the distance, obscured by spring's new greenery.

"It gives me some of that separation," Reid said of the space. "It's quieter, also."

Beyond the calm and convenience it affords him, the story of Reid's treehouse offers a model of creativity for the future of Oakland Mills, one of Columbia's oldest villages, and the city's other aging neighborhoods, some community members say.

It also wasn't without a few speed bumps along the way.

Seeds of an idea

Reid had planned to construct an outbuilding, instead of a treehouse, in the backyard.

He hired an architect to design a structure in the contemporary style of the 1970s-era houses in Oakland Mills to sit below the sycamores.

Then he called in some contractors for advice – and they said the building, as designed, would kill the trees.

"The problem was, I wanted to build it myself, and the way he had designed it was to cut it into the hill," Reid said of the architect's plan. The construction would damage the roots of the tall, shady sycamores he and his family loved.

At the same time, Reid was also going to a workshop to learn how to build a treehouse for his kids, 6-year-old Xavier, a first-grader at Talbott Springs Elementary School, and 4-year-old Vivian.

But once he and his wife, Stephanie, started seeing how large some of the designs could be, the idea to build a treehouse office sprouted and grew.

"It's just so nice, with the kids, having us based out of the home," Stephanie Reid said. "When he started talking about this treehouse workshop, I just put it together... and I thought, 'You could totally have an office out a treehouse.' He was on board with it."

The Reids chose a design from the Washington state-based company behind the "Treehouse Masters" show on Animal Planet, had an architect tweak the plans and by the fall of 2013, Alex had built the platform. A year later, the treehouse was complete.

Technical violation

Though the Reids thought they had gained all the necessary approvals for their new building among the trees, and had support from the village's Residential Architectural Committee, they faced a hiccup a few months after it was finished.

The family keeps chickens in their backyard, and when an anonymous complaint was filed against them about the coops, a county inspector discovered that a portion of the treehouse's back deck was infringing upon a zoning setback.

"It's an irregular shape," Alex Reid explained. "We were trying to work with the trees and have everything fit and have usable space. It's not like you can just create a box structure anywhere you want – you kind of have to work with what you have."

Faced with the possibility of having to dismantle the office he worked a year to build, Reid decided to ask the county's Planning Board, a five-member appointed group that considers zoning and construction projects throughout the county, for an exception.

Planning Board member Phil Engelke, a Columbia resident, was immediately enamored with the Reids' creativity.

"As someone who's in the community, we want to have these young people move in, get people interested in renovating, and here this guy was doing it," Engelke said.

The Planning Board voted to approve the exception.

Community ties

Before the idea of the treehouse office was conceived, the Reids had considered moving to a new house.

"We were thinking about moving," Alex Reid said. The family's rancher-style home was "kind of on the small side," he said.

The more he and Stephanie weighed their options and looked at potential new houses, however, the more they realized how much they felt at home in Oakland Mills.

"Everything is so convenient, in terms of just getting out, running errands – and then I love all the aspects of the paths, the programs, and I just feel like we're so centrally located that I really would not to move anywhere else," Stephanie Reid said.

The sense of community and the friendships they had built with neighbors, many of whom have young children, was something they didn't want to leave behind.

"You can buy a new house somewhere else, but you don't really get to choose your neighbors," Alex Reid said.

So the couple decided to double their living space – by building a second floor for their house. They've been spending a lot of time in the treehouse for comfort and quiet as work on the addition progresses.

Future possibilities

The Reids' projects represent a possible path forward for Columbia's older villages, which have struggled with decay as their neighborhoods age, says Engelke.

The first step, in his view, is to re-examine some of the planned community's rules, which regulate the appearance of homes.

"When you live in a planned community like Columbia, everything's done when you arrive," Engelke, an architect, said. "After a while, people themselves have to make those decisions."

He hopes to form a group that brings together community associations and the county to offer support to homeowners interested in renovating.

"There's a lot of the houses that are in trouble" in the neighborhood, he said. While the approach so far has been to threaten homeowners in violation of appearance rules with a lawsuit, he said he'd like to highlight successful renovations instead.

Other initiatives could include a partnership with Benjamin Moore to offer discounted paint to spruce up front doors and recruiting architects to provide consulting advice to homeowners interested in a remodel, Engelke added.

County Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat who lives about a block away from the Reids in Oakland Mills, helped pass a housing bill last year that set up a loan program for owners of aging homes throughout the county to pay for renovations.

The program isn't funded in County Executive Allan Kittleman's budget proposal for next fiscal year; at a March town hall meeting in Oakland Mills, he explained that "there's not a whole lot [of money] to go around" this cycle.

Ball said he hopes to see funding for the program in future budgets.

"I think we need to continue looking for creative ways to ensure that innovative programs like that that help our neighborhoods and communities and homeowners continue to grow and thrive, all across the county," he said.

Alex Reid said he understands his family's solution isn't for everyone, but he said he hoped to be a part of the neighborhood's revitalization.

"I feel like the ball has to start somewhere," he said. "I think there's a lot of value in older communities, and building what you want. You can get what you want out of what you have, instead of just throwing it away and going for new."

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