Category Archives: treehouse

A word to the wise when building a shed

So you want to build a shed or a play house or a tree house or something like that. Good on ya! I read a couple of books on the subject as I was getting this shed house up and going. One thing they all say is “check local building codes” which sounds like the sort of cover-your-ass boilerplate that the publisher made them put in. But there’s a lot of wisdom in it because if you know the rules, and follow them, you could end up saving hassles down the road.

The stilt house is going up in a small backyard. And it’s a giant structure in that small backyard. There are neighbors just over the fence, and we’re all nice and cosy… their trees drop leaves (hell, one of their ivy plants came over the fence and killed the one tree in my yard which is why I built this thing on stilts in the first place). This thing is a part of the neighborhood, like it or not. We talked to some of the neighbors about it in general terms, but even I was a bit surprised at how big it looks there in the yard.

And here is where reading the regulations comes in. Our town actually has a very nice write up of the municipal code concerning accessory buildings, in plane text (and in Comic Sans, so you know it’s user friendly, natch). So we’ve got a definition as “A detached, subordinate building, the use of which is clearly incidental to that of the main building or to the use of the land.” Check.

accessory buildings

More important is stuff like “If… will exceed 120 square feet in floor area, a Building Permit is required; if 120 square feet or less, exempt.” Hmm. My original shed house  would have been pushing this limit. Another critical one is the roof height and offset. The walls must be either less than 6 inches from the property line, or more than 3 feet. Since I have a 6″ cinderblock wall in my yard, I can’t really go to the narrow limit, even if I cared to, so I made sure it was 3′ away from the line. I don’t actually know where my property line is, but I gave a few inches from the inside of the fence and called that good. Then there’s the roof height: 12′ from the foundation. Again, the shed house would have pushed over this, which is the thing that killed that plan more than anything. There are some other regulations about doors and windows as a % of wall size and in relation to the property line, but they are all simple to understand.

Once the poles were in, we went looking for where the roof and floor should go. Basically, we started at a roof of 11’11” and worked down from there. The poles were set so as to be far enough from the edge. The windows won’t be too big, and the floor layout is 64 sqft. All good.

Back to the knowing all these regulations, and following them: when the building inspector showed up at the house the day after we started construction, it was nice to know the rules were on our side. My wife was running out the door, but she waved him into the backyard and told him to measure away. When I called him later to follow up, he had some serious advice about covering up the pressure treated posts to keep the kids from getting splinters, but as far as the house itself, we were good to go.

I’m sure this will blend in as time goes on; in the meantime, the kids like it looming in their field of view. I look forward to them looming over me as I garden or bbq in the yard.

Stilt house gets realer

Another productive day on the job site… by sundown, here’s where the stilt-house stands:

The floor is framed in with 4×6, the 2×6 joists have been added, and the interior floor (3/4″ ply) is in place). The first roof joists are in and the fascia board on the front is added to be sure that it’s not going over the 12′ height limit.

stilt house framed

Here are the 4×6’s getting added. This took a lot of math to get right. Billy put a laser level line on each post last night, and we were able to work all the measurements from there this morning. I’m starting with the 12′ height limit and going down from there. I know that I want to be able to walk into the house without totally cracking my skull, so it’s got a 70″ internal height at the front. Between the roof joists, I’ll be able to stand up! At the back, it’ll drop to just under 5′, so it’ll be cramped, but we’ll probably have a bench there anyway.

The 4×6’s are bolted into the uprights with 2 1/2″ through bolts. And then a Simson angle on the inside. The whole structure feels pretty rigid at this point.

side members


The girls are just having to much fun with this project. They have been sorting nails, Tessa helped mix all the concrete, and Eliza is begging to be allowed up the ladder.

job site helpers

Today was another big day at Home Depot… $1300 for all the exterior wall sheeting, the floor, and all the roofing including trim. It also included a door and 3 windows. I was originally going to use reclaimed stuff from Urban Ore or The Reuse people, but hiring Billy changed my mind. It’s a hassle to have to make do with mis-matched windows and a door that’s an odd size. Since I’m paying by the day to have it done, I’m paying for that hassle to get figured out. Turns out, it’s cheaper to just buy the cheapest stuff they’ve got at Home Depot.


Stilt house gets real

For those of you who’ve been following along, you know the tree house has been bubbling along for almost a year. Today, it got real. Actually, reality set in a little while ago, with a reminder from Grandpa John, that little girls don’t need a tree house their whole lives. Time to get it started. I realized a while ago that this was going to be a big task for me to do myself, maybe more than I can handle. I can build a lot of stuff, but I’m a scrawny dude with a bad back. And pretty sloppy as far as woodworking goes. Stuff that a pro can do in minutes takes me a week of searching the internet to figure out. So I’ve been looking for a contractor to help. I found a few, but they all shot down my two-story shed plans as being in the $10K range. A couple weren’t even willing to do the 8′ x 8′ stilt house for a reasonable amount. Then my brother connected me with someone he’d had do great work… he had 2 kids and a real sense for what I was trying to accomplish. Since it had dragged on this long, I was willing to wait until he needed work… here’s a tip: if you ever have a little project that pro’s aren’t excited to take on, wait until the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No one likes to have a remodel in process around the holidays, but remodeling contractors like to buy their kids Christmas presents. Some of the guys who wouldn’t return my calls before started calling back mid November.

So Billy came down and we drew some sketches. I called a guy I’d met in the Home Depot parking lot and 30 minutes later, the concrete started to disappear.

concrete busting

Then the shed disappeared…

shed demo shed demo 2

And pretty soon it was time to build. Billy came down again, for the weekend this time… We did some more talking, then hit the lumber yard and Home Depot. We bought a lot of wood. Billy thought the 6×6 support posts were overkill, but I liked the look. We also went to Urban Ore to see if we could find some recycled doors and windows. We did, but none of them were ideal. And since I’m paying him by the day, I’m not sure it makes sense to spend the extra time trying to make some old piece work.

lumber ready to go

Then the digging started. We originally planned to get the posts a full 3′ into the ground, but I can’t say many of them really hit that depth. The tree roots were brutal, and the soil in the nastiest clay I’ve ever dug. But by the time the sun went down, four 16′ 6x6s were concreted into the ground.

tree house posts up

Tomorrow we’ll start drilling in the 4×6 floor supports. We also have to run back to Home Depot for the panel pieces…

So, to recap:

– 6×6 pressure treated posts in the ground

– frame of 4×6 pt holding up the floor.

– stud walls, unfinished inside, cheap Hardie siding outside. We’ll see how the money looks at the end… if there’s enough left, I’d like to put shingles on.

– roof with be 2×4, attached to the main posts. Sheathed with OSB and then some cheap tar paper roofing.

– front will have  a 3′ deck out of redwood

– Front door, front window, 2 side windows, skylight?

Cost thus far:

$730 for main lumber, including nice redwood decking from Ashby Lumber

$300 for concrete, studs, nails and Simpson hardware at Home Depot

Stilt house

Having realized that there was no way I could afford a house with a totally built shed beneath, I’m now focused on getting the house up top done… then I’ll put some storage lockers down below. And maybe  a chicken coop.

Plan is for a simple ladder up the right side (as facing it) and a fire pole down the other side. Thinking there will be some eves, but have to see if I can afford them.

I’d also like to use pretty stout supports (6×6) so I can hang  a hammock off one side. Probably bury pressure treated wood 3′ in the ground.

stilt house v1 right dim stilt house v1 left dim

Shed house: more details

Here are some additional details about the Shed House. I put in some details about the deck. I drew the deck with a massive support post, which looks kind of silly, but I’ve been looking for a place to connect a hammock or a slackline. I don’t know about the other side, but once I get the other shed out of there, I’ll be able to find on the edge of the yard to sink another one.


corner shed v3 rail side corner shed v3 rail door side corner shed v3 top

Here is a photo of the site. The existing sheds both need to go. No idea how to get them out of the yard, but that’s problem for another day. There is also a concrete pad that should go as well. I think I’ll leave the cinderblock wall, though… taking it out would mean rebuilding the fence behind. I’ve sketched leaving in an apron of the concrete pad under the deck, but that’s not well thought out.

backyard as of August 2014

Shedhouse v1

shed house top view



shed house front view

corner shed v3 20140720 backThe treehouse project got new life and enthusiasm.I mean, what’s the point of building a play house for the kids when they’re in high school? This has to happen soon!

After deciding that the tree had to go, I’ve been thinking about designs for a shed house. This will replace the existing storage shed with a 2-story deal that will have a play room on top.

I want it to be kind of discrete, but also big enough to be usable.

Here’s the first draft of the design… plan is for the base box to be 8’x8′, offset from the cinderblock wall by 3′. There will be a stairway up the back cinderblock wall, and a 3′ walkway around to the door on the front. Ideally, there’ll be a fire pole somewhere to get down from it… probably where the deck around the front gets really narrow. I really like the idea of a curved front wall so that the thing faces into the yard instead of being square, but tucked into the corner… It’s a small yard, and a big looming box would make it look pretty jenke. There has been talk of having some kind of vine grow up the sides, too.

Questions: Trying to figure out the roof… it’s quite tricky to think of how to slope it down from the curved wall to the point in the back. I want it to have a bit of an eve, for one thing, to give the firepole somewhere to attach! There’s also the issue of slope. I’ve heard recommended a 3 in 12 slope minimum. That means a 2’+ drop across the roof. I really don’t want this whole package any taller than I need, but don’t really want the back of the house to be much shorter than 5’6″, which gives me 7’6″ in the front. I’m assuming the bottom story has to be at least 6’6″ for sticking storage tubs in.

Yeah, there’s some weirdness with the way I drew the walls meeting the roof. This is me hitting the limits of my skill with sketchup.

As always, comments very much welcome.


Treehouse Update

The treehouse project has been on the back burner a bit. We had an arborist come over who basically refused to do anything besides cut the tree all the way down. The man had some good points: the tree itself might (probably) be rotten, especially on the side where no live branches remain. The weight of the house would make it worse… blah, blah. I’m cooking up a new plan to get much of the weight off the tree itself. Everyone keeps suggesting just putting it on stilts, but damn it, that’s not a tree house.

So I found some dude… he did some digging on our front yard (my wife found him mowing the lawn down the street… he and his brother work incredibly hard for not a lot of money). He came over and offered to dig all sorts of roots and stumps out of my yard for $750. He also agreed to prune the treehouse tree and hack the ivy off…

As a reminder, here’s what it has looked like up ’til now



Half way through the day, here’s an update. That little tuft sticking out is a still-living bit of the original camphor tree…


By the time Milton was done, here’s the stump in all it’s glory. You can’t see it in this picture, but I had him leave that little tuft. It can only help prevent rot and I can always lop it off later.


This shot should give an example of how gnarly the ivy was…



Anyway, now it’s time to get serious about the design. My plan is to have it start just above that lump out to the right, about 8′ up so I can walk under it.

More Treehouse thoughts

This treehouse project is becoming kind of consuming. I thought it was going to be an easy: chop the top off the tree, build a platform, add a house, have the kids think I’m awesome.

Few hiccups. First thing was the tree guy looked at the tree and didn’t think much of the plan. As a biologist, I have to concede he has a point. His worry is that there are only a couple of scraggly branches still alive, and they’re all on one side of the tree. We have no idea when the rest of the tree succumbed to the ivy, so the wood and roots on the dead side may already have been rotting for 8 years. I talked to my friend Justin, a man I trust wherever building shit is concerned. He told me a dead stump could easily be sound for 15 years… I mentioned the ivy killing most of it already and he said “oh, yeah, that’s not good.” If Justin thinks it’s not good, I’m convinced.

So, new plan. Instead of sticking the house on top of the tree, it will now just use the tree as one of the supports, with the bulk of it supported by beams sunk into concrete at the back. This has a bunch of benefits: the house will stabilize the tree, instead of being a big blob on the end of a stick, wiggling the tree around and hastening its demise; the tree will be outside of the house, so I can actually leave the live branch at 11′ to try to keep the roots alive a bit longer; plus, the house will be farther back in the yard, casting less shade.

Now the idea is for something with a cool deck. And now I’m starting to think of all sorts of crazy stuff. Here are 3 possible layouts. In each of them, the tree is the round thing at the front. The  L-shaped thing at the back is a cinderblock wall that tops out about 6′. The square shape to the back will be the house, and the curved shape around the tree will be a deck.

layout tree at  front 2014 01 09

So, here it is square to the wall… This is far and away the easiest way to do this. I don’t have to plan too much. I sink the posts back at the wall and then, with a tree and 2 posts,  I build a house.

On the other hand, though, this will not look as good in the yard. It would be way better if it were turned a little. I could do this:

layout tree at  front rotate 2014 01 09Which will look a bit better in the yard and put the posts against the wall. Kind of a pain, though. I have to make sure that the posts are square with and centered on the tree… but still, very doable. The angle sucks, though. I’m no architect, but those angles are weird and too shallow.

Here would be the ideal:

layout tree at  front xtraRotate 2014 01 09But, boy-howdy, it would be a pain. I’d have to sink 3 posts, which now have to be exactly right. I have 5 walls inside instead of 4. And then what the hell does the roof look like?

I’ve been thinking of doing a peaked roof anyway. The roof has to be 6′ for me to work in it comfortably, but it will be a tall feature over the garden. A peaked roof could be 5′ at the edges and 7′ at the center, which should look less imposing. But trying to do a peaked roof on that last angled look? Not sure how that would work. I welcome comments, for sure.

Ok, here are some treehouse building resources I’ve found. These are mostly for me to locate later.

Here’s a deck load calculator that is super helpful:

When you think about it, a treehouse is just a deck with a structure on it. I need to find a good source to calculate the weight of the wood, but this has made me re-think some ideas like using 2×6 TNG instead of 3/4″ plywood as the deck. I know the TNG would be so much nicer, but it would weigh a shit-ton so I’d better be aware of what that means for my support posts. I wish I knew a source for telephone poles… they would be such awesome supports for the back that it would be almost like 3 trees. As it is, I’m probably scrounging surplus 6×6’s and wishing I had something bigger.

I really need to figure out the siding. So many of the best treehouses end up looking like shacks because the outside is plywood. The structure is a thing of beauty, but the sheating is shit. I’d like to avoid that fate, but then the weight starts to crop up. At least I have an out: in a year or 2, without serious work, the ivy/blackberries will seriously overgrow this thing anyway.


This site has some great treehouse examples:

they make me realize I’m far from the most obsessed treehouse builder out there.

The other thing I see are some great reclaimed lumber places. I wish I had the money to buy some of their old timbers for my beams.

Maybe it’s better. I can only imagine what I’d say about the pretentious twerp who bought some 1892 farmouse timber for his kids’ treehouse.