As a professional writer who collectively calls my kitchen counter, dining table and couch my “office,” I often long for a quiet place where I can carve out a small space to write. In quiet solitude. With at least six linear feet of uninterrupted desk space where I can lay out my interview notes and reference papers and leave them there day after day. A place where no phones ring, and no emails ping. No engines rev or hum, and there are no reminders of the daily grind. In this space, I hear only the call of birds and the rustle of wind. And because my current office is my kitchen counter, dining table and couch — and has been for the past year — this desire for a writer’s studio is deeply entrenched. It’s odd, but even though I work from home I don’t have a dedicated space to work.
One image of my dream studio that continually comes to mind: a tree house. Yes, my ideal writer’s studio would be a tree house. I even have a book on how to design tree houses: The Treehouse Book, by Peter and Judy Nelson with Peter Larkin. This book is a left over vestige from my former life as a commercial interior designer. It sits next to my other design books on green architecture and ecologically-sensitive designs; in fact, it occupies the space just to the right of my book on the architect James Cutler, by Contemporary World Architects. I think when I filed them that way, it made sense to put them next to each other, since Cutler’s designs use wood of every grain and cut to create interiors that are often reminiscent of an architectural forest. Cutler’s work was deeply influential upon me when I was a design student. And in my mind’s eye, the design of my future treehouse will be heavily influenced by his style.
I’d always thought the tree house book to be something of a novelty, until I realized last summer how practical a tree house would be as a writer’s studio. And apparently I am not alone. It turns out there is a practical sub-culture of people who prefer their office to be in a tree house! Just google “tree house office” and you will see what I mean. Or watch this YouTube video about a man in Minnesota who retrofitted a tree house to be his office:
Or this one, which highlights many types of tree houses (actually, I like this video better than the first! How can you not? It has a ZIP LINE!):
Practical reasons for building a tree house writer’s studio include:
- It would be less expensive to build than a detached structure from my home.
- Keeping the interior sparse and fairly rustic just may provide the sort of creature-comfort deprivation that I need to stay focused. Asceticism breeds productive focus, in my world.
- It may minimize visitors and I can legitimately say “I’m not at home” or “I’m going to the office today.”
- Mental separation of locating my working environment away from my living environment.
- The shear creative potential of letting my brain function in an environment that I love: nature, at elevation.
For the interior, I would design a work surface built into the wall that is approximately 30 inches deep and 72 inches long. A smaller work surface would be perpendicular to this one, and shallower. I’d have built-in shelves along the walls for housing books and project materials, and a deep window seat with storage below. The space would be outfitted with electricity powered by solar photovoltaic cells — just enough to run ceiling lights, computer, printer and an internet connection. And perhaps a small space heater for the winter months. I might even build a small twin-sized murphy bed in to one wall, for those oh-so-necessary naps that produce the best ideas in the late afternoon. Come to think of it, if I designed it correctly, the tree house could even double for an overnight guest room.
Building a good tree house takes a bit of work. There is a lot of planning and site-specific assessment. You must pick the right tree or trees, and you must design your structure so that it respects the living being you are building around. Where I live in the southeast, there are lots of pine trees and some oaks. But mostly large pines. There are two main ways to build a tree house around pines, which have long straight trunks but not many branches large enough to use as a foundation for a weight-bearing structure. The first way is to build a platform around the truck so that the trunk goes through the middle of the floor plan, and joists under-gird the floor boards in a star-shaped pattern radiating from the trunk. This gives a stable foundation from which to build, but it is limited in how large you can build (the further the joists radiate from the tree, the less stable they will become). The second method is to use the trunks of the pines like pilings, and to link your foundation among several closely spaced pine trunks. This method could combine with the first to create a series of pavilion-like rooms. If you are lucky enough to have a large branching pine tree on your property, you can enlarge your tree houses footprint accordingly. Of course, the higher of an elevation you design it to occupy, then the greater the problem of getting into it. Most designs I’ve seen rely upon stairs to move a person from the ground to the tree house, though I’ve seen a few designs that use simple elevators (which require electricity to operate). I’d definitely want stairs for my tree house, though hauling my laptop, books and notes up and down may get a little old (that is what backpacks are for, right)? If you have a sloped property, then one design solution could be to orient the tree house office so that it’s accessible by terra firma on one side, but elevated dozens of feet off the ground on the other side. Given my boyfriend’s fear of heights, we may have to opt for this version. Then again, if I were to make this truly my own space, I’d float it at least 20 to 30 feet up in the air.
It’s only natural that I’d want to work in a tree. For one thing, I’m a tree-hugging nature lover. My morning entertainment is to watch the birds grasp seeds from a feeder on the back deck. And when I am lost in a project and can not find the words I need, I often find it useful to step outside and go for a walk. Trekking through the woods (or the wood patch bordering a golf course, in my case, which is closer than the real woods…) seems to help my thoughts get unstuck. I hear the dark-eyed juncos, wrens and the robins, and occasionally spy a red fox or rabbit as they go about their daily business of gathering food. The smell of the trees, and the nearby Haw River, seem to unjiggle my writer’s block. And then back to work I go. Sometimes I also go for a bike ride, or swim laps. Repetitive movements help free the words in my head.
I need a lot of mental free space to write (well). But I also need a dedicated physical space to write (well). And seeing the treetops outside of my writing studio window is a very appealing, creativity-inducing image.