Pete Nelson, host of Treehouse Masters and owner of Pete Nelson Treehouse and Supply with finished project at Treehouse Village Inn in South Newfane. (Photo Maia Segura)
by Maia Segura, Vermont Business Magazine In the landscape of hospitality, Vermont hosts a plethora of unusual lodging experiences. Destination travelers can opt to stay in a yurt, carriage house, teepee, sugarhouse, or even a barn with costs that can be upwards of $1100 per night. These locations, despite the price tag, are getting booked with greater frequency.
“These types of properties attract many people from out-of-state as well as international travelers who want an experience that is not typical,” according to Willie Docto, co-owner of Moose Meadow Lodge & Treehouse, and member of the Vermont Travel & Recreation Council. “I think leisure travelers are ready to explore new experiences that are odd in some way,” he said.
The numbers bear this out. A 2018 Home Away trend report noted that barn bookings are up 55 percent, while Airbnb reported that nature lodge bookings are up 700 percent, and yurts are up 155 percent and even RV’s reservations have seen a 133 percent increase.
Meanwhile, more guest treehouses are coming to nest in Vermont’s forest canopies, on trend with what seems to be a recent national obsession. There are currently at least five guest treehouses that are available for short term rentals in Vermont. These range from rustic structures with a private hot tub, to a five-story luxury rental near Stowe, and Moose Meadow Treehouse in Waterbury, a project designed in conjunction with Yestermorrow design/build school. And there are more on the way. Home Away’s report showed that treehouse bookings have increased by 30 percent year over year. But why? “Many travelers want to experience nature (the sound of owls, nature hikes and fresh air) without sacrificing creature comforts,” said Docto.
Ginger (left) and Mike Gammel, new owners of Treehouse Village Inn (formerly South Newfane Inn) and Treehouse Masters guest treehouse. (Photo Maia Segura)
More simply, “Who doesn’t love a treehouse?” said Pete Nelson, owner of Nelson Treehouse and Supply, and host of Animal Planet’s popular Treehouse Masters reality TV show. Nelson and the crew of Treehouse Masters recently wrapped the final episode of the show’s 11th season with a project in South Newfane, Vermont.
For the new owners of the former South Newfane Inn, now the Treehouse Village Inn and location of the Treehouse Masters project, Mike and Ginger Gammel, “a treehouse was a part of the plan from the beginning.”
After a long career in IT for Mike, and 40 years in the nursing profession for Ginger, acquiring the inn and planning the project with their family was much anticipated. “This was a dream of all of ours,” said Ginger.
As the couple commenced their property search, Vermont became the clear choice as Ginger delved into her ancestry and found that her family had deep roots here in Pittsford and Chittenden before migrating to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Southern Vermont became a pull when she found her great-grandmother buried in Grafton. Then there was the fairy tale property that sat waiting for them in South Newfane. “We found this place and it just felt right,” she said.
It was their son Steve Bowler that brought the treehouse idea into the mix, stepped up to help run the inn, and facilitate the project. “My folks were talking about a B & B while I was looking for my ‘out’ from film and TV and living on the road for 10 months out of the year.” he said. “I wanted to get back to my roots in New England.”
Senior producer and photographer for Treehouse Masters for three years, Steve had a front row seat to watch the treehouse industry branch out. “I saw what treehouses did for businesses across the country,” he said. “Ultimate treehouses have 70 to 90 percent occupancy and can rent for $250-500 per night from Texas to North Carolina. And they are popping up all over the place.”
Tree House at Pitchford Estate in Shrewsbury, England, circa built in 1690 and still in use. Queen Victoria of England played here as a child. (Photo courtesy of Pitchford Estate)
Once his parents refined their property search, Steve dug into market research. “There is no creative lodging like this in Southern Vermont,” he said. When the former South Newfane Inn became a contender, Steve flew out from his home in Los Angeles with Treehouse Masters build producer Dustin Pulliam to scout the property. Despite relatively few trees on the property, it was clearly the right choice for both the inn and a treehouse. “I was excited to merge these two ideas, my family, and the TV crew.”
After finalizing the sale, Steve doubled-down on securing the necessary permits for the treehouse project. By the beginning of August, the Treehouse Masters TV crew and builders moved in, and eighteen days later, there was a treehouse. Bowler describes the structure, perched fourteen feet above the ground between a white pine and willow tree as, “…a classic A-frame (with) over 600 square feet of space in the interior, full plumbing, electricity, and a propane fireplace for those chilly nights and romantic evenings. We used a lot of cedar. Western red cedar shingles and white cedar for the top cap, wide pine planks for the interior paneling and three-inch oak slabs for the kitchenette. There is a deck overlooking a pond, waterfall, queen size bed in the loft, microwave, coffee maker, and mini fridge.”
But this isn’t just any treehouse project. This is a Pete Nelson Treehouse Masters project - with a twist. Bowler was now on the other side of the lens. “Being on the other side of the camera was interesting. I have produced thousands of hours of television, and even though I knew what to expect it felt different,” he said. “But overall the natural stuff that happened with Pete and me felt like two friends just having a conversation without cameras there. In TV that is what you always want.”
For Nelson, a self-proclaimed technical and tree geek, Vermont is a natural choice for treehouses. “I’ve found some great trees in this area,” he said. “Vermont is perfect for treehouses with its lush forests and Maple trees. Sugar maples are ancient, and they maintain the forest by sending off the right chemicals to keep shrubs and undergrowth away, with lots of ferns on the forest floor.” He is also enamored with the history of the Maples. “They are huge and have holes in them from trapping them for maple sap for 200 years. Some holes are very high up off the ground from the years with the most snow,” he said.
It’s fair to say that Nelson knows a bit about the mechanics and dynamics of the treehouse industry. After graduating from Deerfield Academy, and with a degree in Economics from Colorado College, he felt a pull to Washington State and made what he calls a “lifestyle choice” to pursue bringing treehouses into the business realm, exploring whether there was a market. He created ads but initially only drew families with an $800 budget for children’s playhouses. “We wanted to focus on design. No one was doing it.” Deflated, but not defeated, Nelson decided to create a demand.
Nelson says he worked hard to create the impression that, “It’s a boom. Everyone is building treehouses.” He put together a book proposal built primarily on photos of treehouse projects on which he’d worked. He found an agent, and within a day of her submitting the concept to publishers, she had two major houses fighting over the book. Houghton-Mifflin won out. His first book (of six), Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on A Limb was published in 1994. “I missed the deadline by a year,” he said. Despite that, the New York Times picked up on the book and published six full pages of Pete’s photos.
The industry took off and a community built up around it. In 1997, there was a treehouse conference. In 2006, he built Treehouse Point Resort in Falls City, Washington with six treehouses. But he was still not making money.
Rising 14-feet off the ground, and secured between a white pine and a willow, the Treehouse Masters treehouse built at Treehouse Village Inn is 600 square feet with plumbing, kitchenette, and gas fireplace. (Photo Maia Segura)
In the meantime, recognizing that the regulatory side would be the biggest challenge in working out a viable business model, he worked with his cohort to “do the math” to engineer the right hardware to support a house in a tree. Charlie Greenwood, a mechanical engineer, tested concepts at the 1997 conference. The results were the treehouse attachment bolt (TAB) “standard limb” otherwise known as a “Garnier Limb,” which is a 1-1/4-inch steel bolt that could hold 15,000 to 25,000 pounds, and “heavy limb” which can hold up to 50,000 pounds. Coupled with the hardened steel BOSS, 3 inches in diameter, shear strength is provided to keep the bolt from shearing off and to ensure support of the structural beams which are attached to at least two tree limbs. Final testing was done with success at Washington State University.
In building a highly-technical, long-standing treehouse, picking the right tree is more than half the battle. “Tree trunks don’t grow up, they get fatter. Trees grow at the tips. Branches get longer and fatter,” said Nelson. “If you pick the right tree, with proper maintenance like any house, you won’t have to do anything for 25-50 years. If the trees are in good health, the house could last for 800 years.” But at some point, the tree will shift. “Then you put another post under it,” said Nelson. “Then it can last for hundreds of years.”
And they have. The Tree House at Pitchford, in England, was first built in the 1600s. At that time the treehouse was supported entirely by the tree. The house was first renovated in 1760. A half century later, Queen Victoria as a young princess wrote in her diary about watching a visiting pack of foxhounds from the treehouse. The treehouse was renovated again in 1980, and now the tree is held up by metal supports and wires shoring it up for years to come.
But the history of treehouses goes back much further. For thousands of years humans have built treehouses to avoid dangers on the ground. From a purely pleasure stand-point, Romans in ancient times built both platform-styled treehouses, as well as those enclosed in the trunks of trees. Treehouses had a resurgence, particularly as a garden amenity, during the Renaissance after Francesco Colonna’s book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was published in 1499. The Medici built a treehouse with a marble staircase and fountain with gurgling pipes. Just outside of Paris in this era, Chestnut trees were used to create restaurants within the trees. Two hundred diners were reported to have been served at the height of the restaurant popularity, with food and drink hoisted up in baskets.
But it’s unlikely that many people have ever made money solely by building treehouses. According to Nelson, even in the early 2000’s, “No one was making money before the TV show.” Despite the success of his books and the thriving treehouse culture, “Back in 2009 – 2010 I was waiting for the phone to ring,” said Nelson. “But now I have a list of vetted potential clients, and a long wait list.”
In its 11th season, and over 100 episodes in the can, Treehouse Masters has been a hit that has driven the industry. Between Nelson’s company, Nelson Treehouse & Supply, and the show, he builds over twenty treehouses each year, or one almost every two weeks. The price of the houses has increased along with the pace. “Back before the show began, $80,000 seemed like a lot of money for a treehouse, but it seemed like no matter what we did, we ended up not making money.”
Treehouses now start at $300,000 for 300 to 700 square feet, including plumbing, electrical and heat. But you can pay up to $1 million as at least one client already has. “Never in a million years did I think that would happen,” said Nelson. What you’re paying for, says Nelson, is some of the finest carpentry in the industry. The joinery in this “deep carpentry,” is so tight, “you “couldn’t get a piece of paper between the joints,” he said. “These are carpenters that take pride in their work. People in the trades know that they are seeing real work.”
There is no end in sight for the treehouse building boom, particularly in the hospitality sector. Nelson’s own Treehouse Point is generally at 97 percent occupancy. “You can’t get a room,” he said. And he has just added a second resort with four treehouses in Utopia, Texas, which went live for bookings in August. “What is the treehouse trajectory? Is it going to get old? I don’t think so. People love treehouses.”
Café seating on the deck of the treehouse at Treehouse Village Inn. (Photo Maia Segura)
For Docto, the construction of the 450 square-foot Moose Meadow Treehouse, was an exercise in patience. Completed in 2013, “The original inspiration was a treehouse built by a friend of ours in Waterbury Center. When we saw it, the seed was planted. Then we learned that Yestermorrow - the design/build school - used local properties to hold their hands-on treehouse building course. We signed up but did not get a call until 3 years later. They only spend a week, which allows them to build the support trusses and the platform, which is a very important part of the structure. We then hired their teacher, Eyrich Stauffer and his crew, to build the rest of it.”
Since then, Moose Meadow has gotten rave reviews from the Boston Globe, to Outside Magazine, to Mashable. “We have seen our treehouse be the site of proposals, weddings, honeymoons, birthday surprises and other special occasions. Parents and grandparents have booked it for their little children, who undoubtedly will remember the experience the rest of their lives. It’s all about creating memories,” said Docto. “Business people in the hospitality industry have to make the total experience of the guest a priority to remain successful.”
“I predict Vermont will continue to see more and more treehouses and other odd inns popping up. With the increasing popularity of TV shows about treehouses, tiny homes and novelty lodging, travelers will seek those kinds places,” he said.
Back in South Newfane, Steve Bowler agrees. “We are early in the game, but people are starting to catch on,” said Bowler. “In the meantime, we own the market in Southern Vermont.”
Treehouse Masters airs on Animal Planet on Friday nights beginning at 7 pm. The episode about the Treehouse Village Inn treehouse will air on Friday, October 19th.
“Biblioteque,” one of four new guest treehouses at Pete Nelson’s new resort, Treehouse Utopia, in Utopia, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Nelson Treehouse and Supply)
For more information about Treehouse Village Inn, go to www.treehousevillageinn.com (link is external).
For more information about Moose Meadow go to www.moosemeadowlodge.net (link is external).
Maia Segura is a freelance writer from Windham County.