For a first date, James “B’fer” Roth went out on a limb.
He served dinner to a young woman named Dana Jinkins in a treehouse, his summer home of five years.
“Best first date ever!” Jinkins recalled. “And he made a killer potato salad to boot.”
They have now been married 23 years.
As a kid in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1960s, Roth had dreamed of living in his very own treehouse. So did just about anyone who’d read “Swiss Family Robinson ” or seen the Disney movie. But he never got around to building one until 1983, after he got his college degree in sculpture and photography in Vermont. “Treehouses make you feel like a kid,” Roth said. “I thought: I’m 25. It’s not too late!”
Roth’s friends let him use a corner of their property, where he built a multitier platform around a big maple tree. He lived there during the summer, cooking in a fire pit, bathing in a pond, and sleeping in a crow’s nest 35 feet off the ground.
Although Roth and Jinkins would go on to raise their two daughters in a terrestrial house — “groundhouses” as treehouse folk call them — Roth had blazed a new career path. Today, he and partner Chris “Ka-V” Haake own The Treehouse Guys LLC , a Warren, Vt.-based construction firm that specializes in building wheelchair-accessible projects for organizations such as the Make-a-Wish-Foundation, Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, and Zeno Mountain Farm in Vermont.
In recent years, however, Roth and Haake have been increasingly called on to build high-end backyard treehouses. And business is booming, with projects this year alone taking them to Indiana, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and two Hawaiian islands. “As hurting as the economy has been, it seems like it hasn’t affected us,” Roth said. “A good year is three to five [projects]. This year we’re doing eight.”
The story is much the same for Tree Top Builders Inc. , a West Chester, Pa.-based business whose work hugs trees in 22 states. “It’s just nuts. It’s crazy,” said owner Dan Wright. “We have a bigger backlog than we’ve ever had.” In Massachusetts, he’s built treehouses in Weston and Andover and has one on the books in Westborough that he’s racing to get to by the end of July.
The success of “Treehouse Masters ,” a reality show that has millions of viewers and was the second most watched program on cable’s Animal Planet in 2013, hasn’t hurt the treehouse trade. The series follows gung-ho Seattle-area builder Pete Nelson and his crew as they construct ultra-high-end projects around the country, including a brew house with stainless-steel tanks in Ohio and an aerial man cave in Washington state with a flat-screen TV and a bar overlooking a koi pond. The show’s success even got Roth and Haake their own pilot, “The Treehouse Guys ,” for the DIY Network. (“I don’t even have a TV, mind you,” Roth said with a laugh.)
These custom construction projects, which require specialized equipment, materials, and engineering, don’t come cheap. Those on Nelson’s show, some of which include bathrooms and kitchens, can cost several hundred thousand dollars. Even the simplest ones Roth builds — just a platform and a roof — cost from $15,000 to $20,000; add walls, windows, and doors, he said, and you’re easily looking at $30,000-plus. “It’s definitely come a long way since when we were kids cobbling together scrounged materials,” Roth said.
Wright’s portfolio suggests that the difference between expensive projects and crazy expensive ones is the people they’re being built for. Projects for kids usually run from $7,000 to $30,000, depending on how big they are and how many ziplines, climbing walls, and other amenities are tacked on. But for projects for the merely young at heart, the sky’s the limit. Wright built a treehouse to suspend a Jacuzzi and one connected to a swimming pool by a $200,000 waterpark-worthy waterslide. “We’ve built a few for poker rooms,” he said. “We’ve built platforms for yoga classes, offices for people who work from home, guest rooms — some of them attached to the groundhouses by bridges.”
Even customers who start out planning for their kids often wind up planning for themselves, Nelson said. “The typical client might get to the point of thinking: Well, this is going to cost us 50 to 60 grand, and kids grow quickly. Why don’t I make it for me, too?”
Years ago, a friend from the Cape came down with “treehouse fever.”
“He caught the bug and talked to his mom, and she caught the bug,” Nelson said. “She literally sent me a check in the mail that said, ‘Peter, I’m serious.’ ” The woman and her husband, now in their 70s, sometimes offer catered dinners in their high-up hideaway at charity auctions (luckily for guests and servers alike, everyone gets to use the stairs).
Nelson, who first started drawing up treehouse designs while a student at Deerfield Academy, still counts that Cape project among his favorites. “I labored over the design of that little one,” he said, including traveling around the area to study Shingle-style architecture. He tries to take inspiration from local homes wherever he goes. His New England projects tend to be simple, in part because of the smaller trees, he said. Out West among the redwoods, there’s “more of a Jim Cutler style: big timbers, post-and-beam. We’re trying to put the houses in scale with the trees we have.”
Regardless of where the house is built, however, clients look at it as an escape. And that’s exactly the way B’fer Roth likes it. He can install electricity and plumbing and all that if customers insist, but that’s not his preference, truth be told. “The whole point of a treehouse is getting away from all the stuff we’re inundated with in the luxuries of our homes,” he said. “My ideal treehouse doesn’t have all the trappings of the modern urban house.”
Roth and his wife have been thinking about their ideal living arrangement a lot these days. Now that their two daughters are grown, they’re talking about selling their groundhouse and simplifying. They have a new grandson who’s going to get a treehouse, of course, so maybe they will live there in Vermont in the warmer months.
“We’re going to downsize not into a condo in the city, but into a condo in the trees,” Roth said. “Then we’ll just bail in the winter.”
And doesn’t that make perfect sense? Snowbird empty-nesters living in the trees.
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Francis Storrs is an assistant editor at The Boston Globe Magazine who has New England roots and his feet planted firmly on the ground. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.