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Sittin' in a Tree

Yestermorrow takes its annual Innovative Homes Tour up into the boughs


It’s not easy to build a house in a tree. After all, trees are living things; they grow, suffer damage and, ultimately, die. When you plop a house on — or around — one, “You’re building a structure that’s reliant on the tree that holds it,” says Dan Eckstein, curriculum director at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren. “If you do it in a way that damages the tree, you jeopardize the house.”

Still, most people can’t get enough of the leafy hideaways — and there are a whole lot more of them tucked away in the woods and backyards of Vermont than you might expect. “People love the concept of being up in the trees,” Eckstein says.

For the past 10 years, Yestermorrow has raised money for its scholarship fund by leading an annual Innovative Homes Tour that lets people peer inside the wild, unusual structures of the Mad River Valley, famous for incubating the iconoclastic Prickly Mountain architects in the 1960s. This year, the school is trying something new: climbing into the trees.

The daylong tour this Saturday, August 11 — with a lunch stop at Yestermorrow’s campus — will explore seven tree houses in central Vermont. And these aren’t your typical rigged-up backyard playhouses. The structures, some of which boast grand entryways, complex designs and even indoor plumbing, are much loftier.

Three of the tree houses were designed and built by Yestermorrow students. Each year, the school offers a class in sustainable tree-house building, which inevitably fills up months in advance, says Eckstein. Part of what makes these structures so appealing, of course, is that they’re difficult to get right.

In the class, students discuss tree physiology with a visiting arborist, who stresses the importance of choosing the right species and attaching the house in a way that keeps the tree alive and healthy. There are engineering difficulties, too. “Trees sway in the breeze,” Eckstein notes. “What happens if they’re swaying in different directions? What happens if the tree house is torn apart? It’s a real design challenge.”

Eckstein describes one of the houses Yestermorrow students built for a client as “Peter Pan-ish, frivolous … with lots of funny and crooked angles.” Another stop on the tour, he says, is an elegant, open-sided structure perched in a beech tree, its floor shaped like a beech leaf. The place has a sleeping loft for kids, says Eckstein, “Though I think the parents have used it, too.”

The tour will head over the Lincoln Gap to visit two handicap-accessible tree houses at Zeno Mountain Farm. And it will stop by a local designer’s private home to take in what Eckstein calls “an absolutely immense” guesthouse, featuring a living room, dining room, bedroom and bathroom, plus plumbing and electricity, all supported by 10 different trees.

Then there’s “Michael’s Memorial” tree house with its swooping roofline and suspended rope bridge. Local architect James “B’fer” Roth designed the playful structure for the children of his friend Michael, who was dying of cancer. Community volunteers joined in to construct the house atop a 12-foot pine stump.

Local tree-house design/builders, including Roth, will join in the tour, answering questions and discussing their processes in depth. Proceeds from ticket sales — $50 each — will feed back into the Yestermorrow scholarship fund, ensuring that Vermont sees plenty more design/build students — and, probably, more awesome tree houses.

“There’s obviously something very enticing about tree houses,” says Eckstein. “They’re people’s childhood dreams. They want to finally bring them to fruition.”

Innovative (Tree) Homes Tour. Saturday, August 11, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Yestermorrow Design/Build School, 189 VT Route 100, in Warren. $50, includes lunch and transportation. Info, 888-496-5541.