Every kid knows there’s something magical about being in a tree house.
Sure, you can play “house” anywhere and pretend to be living out the joys and jobs of adulthood. But in a tree house, you’re 10, 15, or 20 feet up in the air, far above any adults telling you how do to things. It’s like playing house and being a superhero, all the same time.
And that feeling is one you can never forget, Laconia’s Randy Bartlett discovered.
Bartlett and some friends were having breakfast in his 18th century Victorian home along the Winnipesaukee River last summer when they began talking about tree houses.
“We were joking about the idea of doing a tree house here when I said, ‘Let’s build one’,” Bartlett recalled.
“We’d all always wanted a tree house as a kid… I thought, why not?”
Bartlett began sketching out an idea on a napkin, an “adult” tree house that would go into a huge, old elm tree behind the main house. It would have room for a queen-sized bed, a tiny refrigerator, a super video/sound system and some comfortable furniture.
He shared his thoughts with Bob Cosco, an experienced construction worker who'd worked with him on a recent renovation project.
“I thought it was for his kids, but no,” Cosco said. “I’ve been in construction my whole life and I always wanted to build a tree house.”
Over the last decade, there’s been a surge in the so-called “tiny house movement," a drive for some to move away from the typical 2,600 square-foot American home into very small residences – typically between 100 and 400 square feet.
The impetus for tiny house fans is part economics, part environmental, and part social, since tiny houses free up time and resources for activities outside the home.
Bartlett said he wasn’t consciously joining the tiny house movement with his tree house, but since it was built, he’s spent more and more time in it.
“I have a house in town that 6500-square feet but I find myself spending three or four night a week here,” he said. “I guess I’ve found that I don’t need a lot of space. I’m not so caught up in the money, the possessions.”
Building a tree house to fit the desires of a 21st century man is challenging. The first hurdle Cosco faced with the project was building it without actually putting it in the tree.
“We knew the tree was dying so we knew he’d have to build it around it,” Bartlett said. “There couldn’t be any weight on the tree so we had to build it around it, not use it for the structure.”
That meant four, six-inch square steel pillars had to be put in cement pads to raise the house 16 feet up and into the green tree branches. The heavy lifting was done by Barlow Signs, a company Bartlett helped managed for about 25 years. The company’s crane also hoisted up the tree house’s 12’-by-16’ hardwood floor.
After that, Cosco said he built virtually everything while “up a tree.” Even the house’s impressive deck and that roof were all built on site – and up in the air.
You can’t climb up a rope or a ladder nailed to a trunk to get into this tree house. You enter by crossing a wobbly 24-foot wooden rope bridge that extends from a deck space on the main house’s roof to the tree house’s deck.
“It actually has a cable and will hold up to 1350 pounds but I understand why people get nervous,” Bartlett said. “You have to go across one person at a time. My dog wouldn’t do it at first.”
Once safely across the bridge, you find yourself standing on the eight-foot wide deck that overlooks the Winnipesaukee River. It’s a sparkling view, and you’re not so high that you can’t smell the schools of fish that run by.
When you open the sliding glass front door, you’re in the tree house, a genuine Lakes Region cabin with warm colors and rich woods.
It’s basically a single room, 12-by-16 feet, made to look larger and bright with plenty of windows and some clever design tricks, including the vaulted wood ceiling that peaks 16-feet overhead.
Directly in front of you is the “kitchen”: a three-foot granite slab bar held up by a large, rough-hewn wood support beam. A tiny white microwave oven sits on one end of the bar and underneath is a dorm-room-sized refrigerator.
On the opposite side of that space is a chair and desk with a small computer.
Beyond the office and kitchen is the living room, full of comfortable furniture, a large flat-screen television with surround sound, and a large electric fireplace.
The loft, which is directly over the kitchen/office area, is small – only about 5½-feet wide and not high enough to allow you to stand. But it has room for a queen-size bed (without a box spring), a lamp and a small triangular window over the slider front door.
Bartlett originally estimated the tree house would cost him between $55,000 and $75,000 to build, but he and Cosco were able to complete it for much less. He said the four windows in the house were all “second hand, left over from contractors who never picked them up,” Bartlett said. The granite bar was also “scrap,” which he scooped it up for only $250.
Some wood costs were also held down, Cosco said, because of the look they wanted to achieve. “We used a lot of lumber that was rough cut, not kiln-dried.”
The tree house took Cosco about two months to complete but he admitted he to having some doubts about what he was doing about halfway through the project. That’s when a cable TV show named Treehouse Masters began airing.
“I took a look at it and realized they were doing things like ‘Extreme Tree House,’” Cosco said, adding that the houses featured on the show were much more expensive and grand than Bartlett’s project.
Fortunately, “extreme” wasn’t what Bartlett wanted so Cosco, reassured, settled down and finished the project.
Now, he says he he’s happy with how it turned out, and has already been contacted about building at least one more tree house in the Lakes Region.
And as for the less-than-traditional homeowner, he’s enjoying his tree house away from home. “It’s lots of fun,” Bartlett said. “I enjoy being there more than in my house. It’s by the water, and I’m much more comfortable.”
Ray Carbone is a long time Lakes Region writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, New England Boating and various other regional websites and publications. He manages a blog that centers on the Lakes Region lifestyle; it’s an ongoing sequel to his 2009 book, “The Lakes Region of New Hampshire: Four Seasons, Countless Memories.” Carbone is currently working on a new book, “Legendary Locals of the Lakes Region,” that is scheduled to be released next summer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org