Over the past six years Pete Nelson has become a household name and a recognizable face, with a TV series on Animal Planet and a collection of books that showcase his unique mastery of building amazing and intricate structures in the trees.
His love for nature and carpentry was always there. But it took some creativity for Nelson to take the blueprints for his dream business and bring them to fruition, evolving from a side gig to a full-blown tree house empire.
Laying The Foundation
After graduating from Colorado College, Nelson followed then-girlfriend and now-wife Judy to the Seattle area in 1987. The couple married, and Nelson started working as a contractor. Mesmerized by Seattle’s lush, dense forests, Nelson started building tree houses on the side. "Where we are, the environment is ideally suited," he says. "There are big trees and lots of forests."
In 1994, he built his first tree house for his family. "I thought I was going to move the family in, and Judy was like, ‘No, we aren’t living in the trees, Pete,’" he recalls with a laugh. That first tree house was Nelson’s office for 7 years, where he would doodle renderings and write books, conceiving what would grow into a dynasty.
While building houses, Nelson was learning more and more about design, construction, engineering, and permitting, which would in turn help with his side gig building tree houses.
He started building these structures as offices and art studios. Some clients commissioned them as escapes where they could unplug—cozy getaways in backyards and out in the woods. Nelson’s side hustle started gaining traction.
To market himself, he started writing coffee table books. The first one hit shelves in 1994, published by Houghton Mifflin. And every couple years the builder would put out another tome showcasing his elaborate structures and further defining him as the tree house authority.
While Nelson was building on spec in Seattle as his full-time job, he was constructing two or more tree houses a year on the side. With Seattle’s wet winters and the hassles of permitting, Nelson was holding out hope that his dream of being "the tree house guy" would eventually come to fruition. The trees were calling to him.
"I thought, ‘What if I could just build tree houses for a living,’" he recalls of his younger self. "It was a crazy idea. I was interested if other like-minded people were building Swiss Family Robinson–style tree houses out there."
In 1997, Nelson formalized his tree house business and hired a partner and bookkeeper. The business continued to grow, and 2005 he took the leap—Nelson Treehouse became his main priority. Construction slowed during the recession, but Nelson’s desire to adorn the trees didn’t stop. "I wanted to build as many tree houses as I could," he says.
"These structures are so magical in every way, and I had a very clear picture in my mind that we would grow into a serious building company—one based in joy and putting people into the trees and nature." —Nelson
Located about 20 miles outside of Seattle in the forested enclave of Fall City, Nelson’s family-owned business now consist of his wife Judy, daughter Emily, twin sons Henry and Charlie, and a handful of carpenters. The Nelsons’ arbor dwellings can be found around the country—from the neighboring San Juan Islands to the East Coast.
Building The Dream
As the economy started getting back on track in 2011, a new exciting opportunity came knocking that would further propel Nelson and his lofty structures into the spotlight. Animal Planet offered Nelson a television show that would follow the family business and their amazing projects. In 2012 the TV channel’s series Treehouse Masters debuted. "The show really turned up the heat," Nelson says.
Tree houses that once took three to five months to complete were now done over the course of a few weeks for filming purposes. And the Nelsons ramped up their work schedule so they were building 15 to 20 tree houses a year. "I was at the edge of my sanity trying to crank these things out," he recalls with a laugh.
Last fall—seven years and 11 seasons later—the Nelson family wrapped their last season of Treehouse Masters. "We really struck a chord with that show," he says. "Tree houses bring out the best in people."
With the TV series behind them, the company is changing gears and focusing on the hospitality industry. "It’s our bread and butter," says Nelson. "There is a hospitality side that we have been working hard on."
In 2006, the Nelsons launched their own getaway tree house rentals in Fall City. TreeHouse Point incorporates six tree houses that were built on a shoestring with leftover materials. They have been 95% occupied since opening day, raking in around $300 each night.
The Nelsons also opened Treehouse Utopia in Texas Hill Country in partnership with Laurel Tree Restaurant. The four tree houses overlook the Sabinal River. And the Nelson family is currently in the process of designing Treehouse Resort & Spa in Redmond, Washington—a relaxing retreat with both tree dwellings and traditional dwellings. Construction on the resort will start in 2021.
Since opening their first getaway in 2006, other players in the hospitality industry have taken notice and inquired about creating tree house accommodations. For instance the Nelsons just finished up a series of dwellings in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a development company. The eight 250- to 300-square-foot tree houses will be used for overnight rentals.
The Design and Build Process
As you might imagine, it’s cumbersome to build a structure in the trees. You have to be part trapeze artist, hanging from ropes and using arbor rigging techniques. "There’s a number of skills that are important in the platform construction," says Nelson. "We are more often or not hanging."
Firstly, the trees dictate the design of the house. Nelson and his crew come out to your property and walk around, scoping out trees to see where a structure is viable. They look for sturdy and mature trees that will live for a long time, such as Douglas firs, western red cedars, oaks, and maples.
After the location is established and the client’s aesthetic and functional needs are taken into consideration, the design process begins. Carpenters prefabricate most of each tree house in the company’s Fall City woodshop and then the tree house platform is custom built on-site.
The structures, which range from 200 to 500 square feet, can contain all of the amenities of a regular residence—including plumbing and electrical. But the tree houses don’t come cheap.
"These are not low-ticket items," says Nelson. "Our average tree house is over $300,000. They are intensely labor intensive, and it is for the high-end market."
The tree houses are largely constructed from Douglas fir, with glue-laminated beams for larger structural members. Large bolts, cables, decks, ramps, and bridges also are employed. If trees are spaced too far apart, a post will be added to help with structural support.
Stylistically, the tree houses Nelson builds are a mishmash, with aesthetics dictated by the client’s needs. They range from traditional with shingles and gables to modern with clean lines and no frill.
The tree houses are designed with two principles in mind: trees move with the wind, and they grow in girth over the years. "The idea is to create a platform that is bombproof and allows trees to sway in the wind and grow," he says.
Interested in a tree house for yourself? Learn more at Nelson Treehouse.