The ideal of living up among the trees has a deep-rooted romantic appeal. Treetop homes offer a profound sense of connection with the natural world, while capturing the warmth of cosy rural cabins and retreats. More than this, they are playful places recalling childhood memories of floating amid the branches and looking down on the world with a bird’s-eye perspective. It’s these qualities that have led to a wave of interest in architect-designed homes where grown-up sophistication and comfort enhance the childhood dream.
Part of this heightened interest is down to architects and designers exploring innovative ways to liberate buildings from the ground and suspend them within the canopy. Another decisive force is the success of treehouse hotels, found in enticing countryside settings in places such as Thailand and, notably, Scandinavia, where they have been embraced with a passion. Beyond this, architects are finding new creative expression in hybrid houses that reference the idea of treehouses – and the exhilaration they offer – within stilted structures or flying cantilevered platforms to convey the feeling of being right in the midst of the canopy.
Architect Pieter Malan of Malan Vorster has designed an extraordinary contemporary treehouse-like residence for businessman Graham Paarman on his estate in the Constantia winelands of South Africa. The building is a collection of elevated cylinders constructed with a combination of steel framework, glass and timber, and stands on a hill among oak and eucalyptus. It is a structurally complex building and was developed through a series of full-scale mock-ups, but also has a beautifully crafted aesthetic.
Malan describes the house – within which there is a palpable connection to the woodland setting – as both bold and unobtrusive. “On the one hand it’s a quiet sanctuary that blends into its surroundings, but on the other its architectural expression comes across like nothing one has seen before,” he says. “We all yearn to be closer to nature and to reclaim those memories of the freedom of childhood, when there was a magical structure in the trees – quite possibly of our own creation – offering the excitement of hovering between ground and sky.”
Paarman commissioned the house as an intriguing new addition to the family smallholding. “It’s a self-indulgent cocoon designed for sleeping and sometimes entertaining family and friends,” he says. “The main level features a substantial living room arranged around a wood-burning stove, while the other levels accommodate a bedroom and a roof deck. But there’s also the appeal of a house made with natural materials that will – in time – weather and blend into the landscape rather than superimpose itself upon it.”
In Chile, UNarquitectura was tasked with designing a functional, engaging family home that happened to be a treehouse. Nestled in the rural Curacaví commune, Casa Quebrada floats on a series of wooden stilts among native trees. The owners wanted a holiday house that would allow them to feel more immersed in the woodland than was possible in their nearby family home. “It was a very interesting challenge – especially in a forest setting where we could build without disturbing the landscape itself,” says architect Juan Pablo Nazar. “The high vantage point offers amazing views and a different perspective on the woodland and the sky. As this house is small scale, we were able to design what is a beautiful object placed deep within nature itself.”
German architect Andreas Wenning became so enamoured with treehouses – having designed his own in 2003 – that his practice Baumraum seized on the gap in the market for original and bespoke designs and now specialises in contemporary elevated architecture. One of Wenning’s most striking residential projects is Treehouse Djuren: a project he describes as a “nest” among the trees, which is defined by an elliptical profile that he likens to “an egg cut open longitudinally”. It was commissioned by a family as a guestroom, but also doubles as a place of escape where they listen to music and step back from the stresses of everyday life.
“I have always liked the idea of being high in the trees in a small but modern and experimental space,” says Wenning, who is now working on a new treehouse hotel in Sri Lanka. “The contrast between a building and the natural environment creates an interesting tension that we like to explore with new designs. Each has a strong sense of expression in combination with this wonderful living organism: the tree.”
The rise and rise of Nordic treehouse hotels – a proliferation of architecturally designed pods of all kinds – has played a special part in sparking interest in 21st-century forest living. Visitors rediscover the joys of getting back to nature and are enlightened by the architectural athletics of the pods themselves, as they showcase what is possible in treehouse living with forward-thinking design.
Take architects Tham & Videgård’s mesmerising mirror-clad treehouse for Treehotel in Harads, northern Sweden. The Mirrorcube reflects the foliage of the trees around it and dissolves into its forest setting. It resembles a piece of sculpture or land art as much as a residence and is part of a series of one-off treehouses at the resort – other designs have been created by Scandinavian practices such as Snøhetta and Cyrén & Cyrén.
Moving to Finland, Studio Puisto has created a set of elevated cabins in the Rovaniemi woodlands of Lapland for the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel. Here, too, the architects’ vision focuses on providing an immersive experience, which translates into the idea of creating “nests among the trees”. These nests provide safe, warm spaces amid the pine and spruce in which to appreciate the extremes of the Arctic climate and its wildlife. The houses are raised above the forest floor upon timber legs – they make little impact upon the landscape and are camouflaged by green roofs.
“The popularity of forest resorts in Finland and Scandinavia generally might have something to do with our long history of living in close proximity to nature,” says Studio Puisto’s Mikko Jakonen. “Traditionally, Finnish houses were often far away from their closest neighbour and almost isolated in the forest. We continue this tradition with our summer houses and people here appreciate the silence and privacy of this way of living.”
In the UK, furniture-maker and craftsman Guy Mallinson has created a 21st-century space at his Woodsman’s Treehouse – a recent recipient of two regional architectural awards from RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects). The house is a new addition to Mallinson’s 14-acre Dorset woodland estate, designed collaboratively by Mallinson and architect Keith Brownlie of Brownlie Ernst and Marks and built by a team of craftsmen in the branches of a veteran oak tree. The two-storey retreat is used for grown-up glamping (from £840 for two nights) and courses in woodworking surrounded by native trees such as oak, ash and willow.
“The very thing that distinguishes this project – the tree – also presented its challenges,” says Brownlie. “We wanted to avoid stressing the oak, so it does not bear the weight of the house – instead we used supports made of recycled telegraph poles to hold the structure in place. The most enjoyable part of the process for us was to break away from modernist architectural conventions and indulge in some design fantasy. At the same time, we wanted to avoid the Dr Seuss kitsch often associated with treehouses – it’s a small but serious piece of architecture.”
The house is constructed from crafted timbers: Douglas fir and cedar cladding, an oak frame and shingles, plus larch slabs for the decking. And there are plenty of home comforts, including a rooftop sauna and a hot tub. “It has been fully booked ever since it opened and guests often wax lyrical about spending a few days away from the real world in the branches of our tree. Treehouses do have a universal appeal – part romance, part childhood fantasy.”
Beyond these literal interpretations of treehouses are contemporary rural residences that take their design cues from the experiential quality of treetop living. Ty Hedfan (translated as “hovering house”) – a Welsh escape belonging to architects Sarah Featherstone and Jeremy Young of Featherstone Young – does just that. The riverside house nestles amid ash and beech trees, and to make use of this setting, the architects have cantilevered part of the building over the nearby water, raising their living room, with its extensive glazing, up into the branches. “We enjoy the dappled light that fills the house and the feeling of being among the trees with the views along the river,” says Featherstone, who also rents out Ty Hedfan (from £1,050 per week) via The Modern House agency. “The ash trees have tall, spindly trunks with similar proportions to the window frames in our living room and add to the impression of the house blurring into the landscape.”
US architect Jim Olson’s own rural escape overlooking Washington state’s Puget Sound coastline also makes the most of its surroundings. The house in Longbranch began life as a cabin and has been modified and extended numerous times, while much of the structure floats on wooden stilts, ensuring it blends into the fir trees encircling it. “We’re all part of nature and a strong connection to the natural world is essential to our wellbeing,” says Olson, whose practice Olson Kundig has just completed a new treehouse in Costa Rica. “There is an excitement to being in a treehouse and something primal about observing the world from a safe place – it is part of our animal instinct.”
As Olson suggests, the notion of a treehouse isn’t just romantic, but offers a mode of living that is engaging and exhilarating; the humble cabin is elevated, literally, to a tempting belvedere. “What’s more, I have seen a shift from a traditional architectural language to a greater interest in modern treehouses,” says Wenning. “These contemporary spaces – often framed by glass – bring us closer to the changing seasons, and the sense of adventure they instil is exciting.”