You’ve heard about the pandemic-inspired surge in home construction and renovation, but what about the treehouse boom? Natural State Treehouses, the 10-year-old Fayetteville-based speciality contractor, has never been busier, owner Josh Hart said.
Among the company’s projects in the last year and a half: an off-the-grid treehouse home in rural Madison County; a deck 13 feet off the ground with a hot tub, fireplace and sauna (nicknamed “hot tub in the sky”); a traditional log cabin; and, Natural State’s bread and butter, all varieties of backyard treehouses and freestanding play structures.
In July, I drove to Pleasant Plains in Independence County to meet up with Hart and his crew during a two-day build for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Natural State has been working with Make-A-Wish for the last six years, building one or two projects for the foundation every month. This one was for Rowan, an active 4-year-old with a host of disabilities: He’s deaf, on the autism spectrum and has cerebral palsy and short-gut syndrome (his body doesn’t absorb and digest food normally).
His mother, Jamie Butler, said she’d initially applied to Make-A-Wish for a trip to Disney World. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Make-A-Wish paused trip grants. That worked out, Butler said, because once the family thought about it more, they decided Rowan would enjoy a treehouse more than a trip to Disney. The original design that Hart, Make-A-Wish and Rowan’s family settled on was for a freestanding playhouse, but when Hart arrived to dig footings, he suggested tying the playhouse into a silver maple just off the family’s covered patio.
To do that, Hart and Co. used a long auger drill bit to bore a deep hole into the trunk, then sunk a long bolt specifically designed for treehouse support. The tree will eventually envelop much of the bolt, which both strengthens the connection and prevents airborne fungus or disease from infiltrating the tree. Hart has built platforms all the way up to 35 feet in the air. The higher you get, the more tree movement. No matter how high the treehouse, Natural State builds to allow the structure to shift as the tree moves.
“Generally, we find the simpler the better,” Hart said. “A lot of times, people will ask for castles or themed things,” but he tries to steer them toward designs that leave plenty of room for imagination. Rowan’s treehouse got most of the full complement of classic treehouse features: a ladder, a deck, an enclosed portion, a basket for raising and lowering, a slide, a tire swing and a gravel pit underneath (Hart recommends gravel over sand to clients). The treehouse is only 5 feet in the air, but even as an adult standing in it while it was still a work in progress, I felt like I was up in the trees.
Hart knows he has a sweet gig. “Back in the day, I basically said, ‘What’s the most fun job I could do?’ ” he remembers. “That’s kind of how the business was born.” The fuller version: In 2010, Hart and his wife, Kate, decided to surprise their sons, then 3 and 5, with an outdoor playset for Christmas. The couple quickly realized that what was commercially available was both expensive and poorly made. “Someone should make sustainably built play structures for kids,” Josh remembers telling Kate, whose response was, “That someone should be you.” At that time, Hart had worked for a decade at the Walton Arts Center, fundraising and managing the box office. “It was a wonderful job,” Hart said, “but I ultimately realized I wasn’t built to work indoors.” He’d learned carpentry from his father.
Hart built that first family treehouse with his sons and Kate, a fiction writer, in mind — a play space that could double as a writing studio. That eye for multipurpose use has always been key to Natural State’s design philosophy, another element that separates its work from the commercially available playsets, which are typically not navigable for anyone but little kids. “A [treehouse or playhouse] doesn’t need to be sized so only kids can be in it,” Hart said. “I like to think about making a place that the 5-year-old can enjoy now, but when she’s 13, she can go do homework. Or adults can have friends up to it to have a cocktail.”
Like any builder, Natural State works on a wide range of projects, though it’s increasingly taking on bigger projects. Still, for the most part, the company operates on the affordable end of the spectrum. “We’re pretty budget-conscious and pretty creative,” he said. “You would be surprised what we can do for $20,000.” But the standard backyard treehouse or playset is more in the $4,000-$7,000 range. Natural State relies heavily on cypress and eastern red cedar, grown and milled in Arkansas, and reclaimed materials, which means the company largely dodged the recent massive spike in lumber prices.
Hart said Natural State is committed to its relationship with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and continuing to build simple backyard treehouses. Most of the company’s work has been concentrated in Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock, but Natural State has traveled all over the state and into Missouri and Oklahoma. “Pretty much all of our business is through word of mouth,” Hart said. Often Natural State will build one backyard treehouse in a neighborhood and get three or four more jobs from neighbors. Word is spreading. In July, Natural State was already booking for spring 2022.