Ibex Talks Trees, Obsession and Baobabs with Pete Nelson of “Treehouse Masters”

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Speaking to Pete Nelson on the phone is what I imagine it would have been like to talk to Walt Disney in 1955 (the year before Disneyland opened) or Steve Jobs in 1976. You can’t help but get caught up in the enthusiasm. There’s a purity in the way he speaks that tritely could be compared to a child’s vision of a dream world. But at the heart of Nelson’s expanding empire isn’t a saccharine, Peter Pan utopia, it’s a man with a biting sense of humor and a sincere passion for looking at the world from a different and aesthetically gorgeous point of view.

Pete Nelson is the founder of Nelson Treehouse and Supply, Treehouse Workshop and Treehouse Point Event Center and Retreat. He’s been the leading treehouse designer and builder in the nation for over 25 years. He’s written a handful of gorgeously photographed books on the art of the building in the trees. But it’s just been in the past six months that Pete’s name and niche has hit the mainstream.

Pete and his team are the mad geniuses behind the Animal Planet’s breakout summer hit, Treehouse Masters. We reached him by phone while he was on location in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania filming an episode for the second season.

In the midst of filming the show and fielding interviews with the New York Times, the Huffington Post and The Today Show, he gave me his full attention – giving no indication that the Ibex Buzz wasn’t on an equal level of journalism and influence for his growing empire. We’re fans of the show (the team often sports the Ibex gear we sent through our friendship with his daughter, Emily), so it wasn’t surprising to find his warmth and energy to be genuine. It was refreshing, though, to momentarily orbit in his palpable energy.

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Bonbibi at Treehouse Point. Photo: Adam Crowley

Ibex Question (IQ): Thanks for taking the time to chat. What a year you’ve had! How’s the transition going – from niche treehouse guy to national television star?

Pete Nelson (PN): Well, I Iove the travels associated with filming. This week, we’re in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, north of Scranton. It’s really pretty. The great part is my wife gets to come along [on all the travels]. Between the business and the show, it’s a full family business. We feel like we’re doing really good work… and we feel like we’re looking snappy, too. The Ibex products are so good. Cotton kills! And we’re outside all the time, so we need [good gear].

IQ: We’re blushing. For the record, that was a completely unsolicited comment, but we’ll take it. Thanks for the compliments. We’re glad you’re digging the Merino and we agree you’re looking snappy, too! So, you’ve said you were 25-years old when you were re-introduced to the idea of treehouses. What happened at 25?

PN: A combination of two things. In high school, some friends and I had planned an amazing, fantasy treehouse. We had great imaginations, but no money and no skills. So it never happened. At 25, this book for kids by David Stiles [titled How to Build Treehouses, Huts and Forts] arrived from one of my old high school friends. I got that spark again.

[At the same time], there was a small, beautiful treehouse – well planned and well executed – four doors down. It was magical. In my backyard there was a cottonwood tree, and I suddenly imagined myself as a treehouse builder again. Why not be a treehouse guy? Being a visual guy, [I wanted to start with] a coffee table book for adult treehouses. It was 1987. Thankfully, there were no treehouse books at the bookstore. So I did the book [titled Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb] and that’s where it started.

IQ: When you’re designing a treehouse for someone else, do you prefer more or less direction?

PN: I like it both ways. If someone says, “We trust you, go for it,” along with a list of the basics they want – that’s great. We’re happy. But, what I prefer is when they’re involved and collaborating. When you put minds together, it can become so much more.

IQ: Have you ever been surprised by the ideas people come up with?

PN: Kids always want bowling alleys and pools [laughs]. Adults get taken away with size. We need to balance the size with what the tree can hold. One of the neatest things is that treehouse people are pretty neat people. In nearly 25 years, I’ve only come across two or three a**holes. Everyone else has been truly remarkable and really wonderful. We work with a lot of dreamers.

The people who make the final call to have [a treehouse] built are dreamers and are also doer types. [The cost of a treehouse] is never less than $60-80,000, and usually you break $100,000. So, they’re successful and it’s been very inspirational to me to work with them. What’s been amazing is how these clients are fascinating people and generous with their advice.

IQ: I’m sure it’s like asking you to choose between your children, but do you have a favorite treehouse?

PN: There is a little shingle style in West Falmouth Massachusetts. It was one of the first styles of architecture I loved – the feeling of pure summer. I was in the backyard of this little shingle house and I felt a little pressure, because it was in the most idyllic place I’d ever been. [I suppose picking a ‘favorite’] boils down to what pushes it over the top, which is the people. You essentially live with them for a month of two. In West Falmouth, I fell in love with the whole family. One of them has turned out to be one of my best friends.

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Temple of the Blue Moon at Treehouse Point. Photo: Pete Nelson.

IQ: Do you have a “white whale” of a treehouse or a tree or a place you’re still aching to build in?

PN: I just love the possibilities that are out there. I have not been to Costa Rica yet, with those big tress down there. I’m sure that’s incredible. Oh! There is a tree called a monkeypod tree that I’d love to build in. Yeah, a big mature monkey…  [… interrupting himself with excitement] or a baobab tree, like in Africa. So, either Hawaii or Madagascar.

IQ: Is there anything you absolutely won’t build in a tree?

PN: Anything ultra heavy. Most things you can put in a house, you can put in a tree. Except a swimming pool or a basement.

IQ: Do you have a treehouse? Or is it a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes?

PN: Technically, we do, though not in our backyard. We own Treehouse Point Hotel with six rentals. We test them out every once in a while.

IQ: With the success of Treehouse Masters and the boom in treehouse popularity, is there anything you’d like to tell people who are eyeing that big maple in their backyard?

PN: What I always like to say is that these heavy-duty treehouses shouldn’t scare anyone away from doing it themselves. Treehouses are part of our culture – all around the world. If you’re considering doing it, just get out there and do it. It brings families together and gets them in the woods. It’s a perfect chance to bond with each other, with friends and with whole communities. Get out there and do it. You almost have to be careful, though, because you will become obsessed. It’s a nice obsession, though.

Ibex: We couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Pete and here’s to getting more families out in the woods!