This article is from Edition 10: The Non Adventurers
Daryl McDonald
Written by Daryl McDonald
Published on 8th July 2021
4 min read

Treehouses are the architectural embodiment of adventure. Daryl McDonald designs and build treehouses for Nelson Treehouse, arguably the world's leading treehouse architects. We asked him what being a treehouse master looks like. 

Treehouse building sounds like one hell of a job! Is it as fun as it sounds? Are there any surprising elements to it?

It is a fantastic job, I truly enjoy it. It's quite fun as a builder and a designer to be as creative as possible. Each project is different and presents it's own set of challenges. It's not as surprising to me anymore, but it's hard work putting structures into trees. I think some people may underestimate that aspect of the build.

What tend to be the most challenging aspects?

Logistics are usually one of the most challenging aspects. We don't typically build treehouses next to roads, so getting materials into the trees over rough ground is tough. Sometimes it can add days to the construction timeline. We just wrapped up a project that we had to take a boat to everyday. It's a great way to commute, but it isn't the easiest logistically.

A Nelson Treehouse in Norway. Photo courtesy of Nelson Treehouse.

Do you have a favourite project (or multiple projects) you’ve worked on?

Yes I have several favourite treehouses/treehouse building experiences. We worked with local treehouse builders in Norway for a treehouse in an adventure park, and it was great to collaborate with people who are doing similar work but in a different way. On the design side it's been fun to be inspired by different schools of thought in design. I think my favourite design of mine that I hope shows this was a treehouse we did in Kentucky that had a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired aesthetic. 

What motivations do people tend to have for getting treehouses?

I think people have many different motivations for building treehouses. First of all, they are really cool. Secondly it's a great way to enjoy nature and be in it for longer. Being in a treehouse literally gives you a new perspective on its surroundings. Thirdly, it's a really fun process. I've been surprised by how many clients are sad when the crew is finished, because they had such a fun time with them in the process of building the treehouse. Most people can't wait for the contractors to leave.

A Nelson Treehouse inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo courtesy of Nelson Treehouse.

Treehouses feel like a step back in time in some sense - a kind of canopy-level cousin of the wood cabin. Do you find that harking back in this way is often part of the motivation?

Absolutely. Treehouses are typically much smaller spaces and thus need to be more simple, which is something that we all need in our lives these days. A simpler existence closer to nature. They provide you with a space away from daily distractions of life, at least as much as you want. They can also give you space to be inspired, like your own Walden.

How has the treehouse market changed since the Nelson family has been involved?

Yes it certainly has changed. It has grown exponentially since Pete and I started working together in 2000. It's been great to see the rise in popularity of treehouses. More people are building more treehouses in tree-friendly ways than ever before, and that makes me very happy. Treehouse resorts have become a really big part of the industry lately as well.

A Nelson Treehouse in the San Juan Islands. Photo courtesy of Nelson Treehouse.

My assumption is that most of your clients would be relatively wealthy families. Is this accurate? Do you also work on more public or different kinds of projects?

Most of our private clients are relatively wealthy, having someone professionally build you a custom treehouse is definitely a luxury. We do a lot of work with non-profit organizations, parks and schools. These are some of my favourite projects, especially the ones that are accessible via a ramp. This allows the most people to have a great treehouse experience and experience that change of perspective. 

What range of skills does a treehouse master need? I imagine pretty advanced carpentry, but presumably there is wider expertise too?

It's a broad skill range that makes a treehouse master. Everyone on the crew definitely has to have strong carpentry skills and it's very helpful to have good climbing and rigging skills. And to top it all off, you need to have decent arboreal and structural-engineering knowledge as well.

A Nelson Treehouse in the San Juan Islands. Photo courtesy of Nelson Treehouse.

I noticed you have a DIY treehousing guide. Is there a strong community of treehouse builders and aficionados around the country?

Yes there is a strong community of professional treehouse builders in the US as well as internationally. And also a strong DIY community as well. We've just launched a DIY line of hardware to address smaller, more backyard style treehouses to help those people find a good tree-attachment solution.

In terms of the design element, are there certain places you look for ideas and inspiration? 

I get most of my inspiration from the trees. With every single one of our projects the trees drive the design in both the space they allow us to build in and also to a certain extent the style. Beyond that there are so many sources of inspiration. One of the great things about treehouses is that they are on a small scale, so you can work out concepts that might be onerous on a bigger structure. We're also fairly stylistically agnostic, so we can stay creative and flexible with the client's vision or what comes to us as we are moving through the design process.