Luxury treehouses pop up nationwide, including some near Chattanooga

Luxury treehouses pop up nationwide, including some near Chattanooga

August 12th, 2016 by Lynda Edwards in Life Entertainment

Andrew Alms sits outside on the deck of the treehouse.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Living in the trees: Luxury treehouses pop up nationwide, including here

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A monster in the trees

A 10-story tall Crossville treehouse nicknamed The Minister’s Dreamhouse — reported to be the world’s largest by some folks — continues to draw visitors even though the state closed it down as a fire and safety hazard. Travel websites warn visitors that they will be trespassing when they go to see the 97-foot tall cathedral nestled in a live white oak and five other load-bearing trees, but the dazzling 80-room structure topped with a belltower (oxygen acetylene bottles were repurposed as bells that chimed daily) still tempts tourists.

Pastor Horace Burgess designed it as a church from what he called a heaven-sent vision. Each story has a well-shaded wraparound deck from which a visitor could see the daffodils, irises, narcissus, gladiolas and wild daisies that Burgess planted in the shape of the word “Jesus.” Inside the 10,000-square-foot marvel are wooden pews, spiral staircases and a basketball court.

Burgess began building in 1993 and just kept adding grace notes to his sky cathedral each year till the fire marshall ordered the property closed in 2012. There is an online petition demanding the property be reopened. Art historians worldwide have urged Cumberland County officials to preserve the structure as folk art but it remains abandoned.

Andrew Alms and Enoch Elwell can hardly wait for autumn.

When the weather cools, guests in their newly finished hideaway can stand on a deck 16 feet above the ground and see vistas of copper and gold leaves sprawling to the horizon. Below them is a drop of 100 feet into a valley and, on summer days, the haven in Flintstone, Ga., makes visitors feel as if they're cradled in cool, green, leafy clouds. In winter, it's like being held in a warm, cozy cube of light above the mountainside as the fog rolls through the valley, obscuring the distant road below.

The hideaway, by the way, is a treehouse.

The millennial duo swear that, even when wind roars across the mountain, the treehouse is stable, supported by oak and gum trees, held steady by steel. Elwell and his wife, Hannah, own the land and live in a small duplex near the treehouse, described on Airbnb as Treetop Hideaways.

"Most guests enjoy watching a thunderstorm from inside the treehouse. But guests are welcome to sleep in the duplex guesthouse if they feel nervous," Elwell says.

A short drive from St. Elmo at the base of Lookout Mountain, the treetop "hotel" feels remote — but Pokéman Go critters have popped up there twice.

"One day we just saw this wave of people staring at their phones while they climbed this steep hill toward the treehouse," Elwell says, laughing.

But it isn't the only extraordinary treehouse within day-trip distance; there are others in Blue Ridge, Ga., and in Crossville, Tenn., although this one is closed for the time being (see story on Page E6). Interest has been sparked over the past five years by such TV shows as "Treehouse Masters" on Animal Planet and DIY Network's "The Treehouse Guys."

And these aren't just slapdash projects for kids, thrown together in the backyard with leftover lumber. Companies like Tree Top Builders are creating incredible structures that can cost as much as $100,000 for treehouses with plumbing and electricity. At those prices, they're often built as rental properties available through such websites as Airbnb.

Elwell and Alms' treehouse's grand opening was in June. Travel + Leisure magazine has already recommended it, saying it's worth $275 per weeknight stay and $350 on the weekends. According to the Airbnb listing, its amenities include s'mores ingredients, a bottle of local wine, Mayfly coffee, Honest Tea, an indoor shower made from an old Chattanooga whiskey barrel, a queen-size loft bed with posh sheets, Wi-Fi, a microwave and a mini-fridge. One day, Elwell says, they would like to have "maybe six treehouses on this mountain. But first we'll break even on our investment."

Longtime buddies Elwell and Alms raised $34,000 via Kickstarter and started construction in February. Several architects and engineers donated their services to the project. Vaproshield rep Aaron Gould donated all the insulation.

"It's designed to sleep four because the couch folds out," explains Hannah Elwell, handing off well-behaved 9-month-old son Clark to her husband so she can deliver fresh linens to the treehouse. "We've had girlfriends getaways here as well as couples with two kids."

Treetop Hideaways also welcomes people who want to rent the space around the treehouse, which seats 100 and includes equipment for cookouts and bonfires.

"Get on our mailing list, and we'll invite you over for free barbecues and concerts even if you never spend a night inside the treehouse," Enoch Elwell says.

Built on TV

In Blue Ridge, DIY Network's "Treehouse Guys" built a treehouse last year for Bear Claw Vineyards owners Kevin and Michelle Swim to rent to guests. The treehouse has plumbing, indoor bathroom, microwave, fridge, wine cooler and Keurig coffeemaker, full bath, Wi-Fi, a flat screen TV and winter and summer climate control. It rents for $229 from Sunday through -Thursday, $275 Friday and Saturday and $325 for holidays.

"It's a work of art," Michelle Swim says, noting that it's a tech marvel, too.

"We've had some 50 mph winds whip through here. Big branches of the tree will be rocking, but inside the treehouse, it feels stable," she says. "The treehouse is built on top of pins that slide gently 3 to 4 inches when it's pushed, so the house holds steady. Guests inside see the branches waving but feel safe and stable."

The couple are juggling day jobs in addition to working on their Bear Claw Vineyard, located four miles outside of Blue Ridge; one of their tasks is preparing a vineyard tasting room for debut next year. And Michelle commutes to Atlanta for her job as chief financial officer at a manufacturer.

To get the treehouse built, she applied to participate in "The Treehouse Guys." The show requires a design that is 200 square feet or bigger and can built within four to six months. Homeowners pay the cost of the treehouse and, in exchange, they get a TV spotlight while handing over the constructions worries to the "Guys."

The Blue Ridge treehouse opened in late February, and the Swims named their first wine Treehouse Chardonnay. Although Michelle candidly describes their marketing budget as "zero," the treehouse has been steadily booked for events and guests who found it cozy in frosty winter and cool in sweltering summer. The Swims now appear in a "Treehouse Guys" episode about some of the challenges of the December and January construction. The insulation that kept it cozy and comfy in the winter now keeps it cool in the summer.

"Rain has turned the red clay of Georgia into soup," treehouse designer B'fer Roth told TV cameras in December as his crew lugged lumber up the steep slope. Occasionally, they slid backwards in silky mud.

Despite the hassles, the house ended up with flourishes such as square windows angled to look like diamonds and Dr. Seuss-ish strips of siding with rippled edges like ribbons of cooked bacon. Roth chose silvery poplar bark to enhance the exterior. The crew tried to peel it off the poplar logs themselves until someone told them that was difficult to do in any season other than spring, when the sap is flowing enough to make the wood moist.

"Then the bark slides right off," Roth smiled ruefully on the show, adding that the birch bark cost $7.50 per square foot.

When the last bit of framework was in place, carpenter John Ferebee placed an evergreen pine bough on the highest point.

"The tree bough is an old tradition," Ferebee says on "Treehouse Guys," explaining this is how the term "topping off" evolved in the construction business.

Building green

Back in Flintstone, the treehouse entrance juts out over a gigantic gray boulder. With a wedding as one of the treehouse's first bookings, stairs were quickly built over the boulder so the bride wouldn't be forced to rock climb in her white gown.

Hannah Elwell came to check on the air conditioning one July day as her husband showed a visitor around. Guests were on their way, and the treehouse AC broke for the first time just as the mercury hit 100 degrees. The repairman was on his way.

In addition to covering their investment and offering a classy rental spot, Elwell and Alms are hoping to inspire a trend in sustainable building.

There is no national LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program for treehouses, yurts or tepees. But there is the Living Building Challenge certification for green projects. To win that certification, a structure must create more electricity and water than it consumes.

The plan is for Treetop Hideaways to get solar panels and a rainwater capture system. It was built with donated wood from an 1860 barn and repurposed elegant windows from an old Main Street warehouse. The Walker County Health Department recommended a septic system instead of the composting toilet the guys wanted.

"The sealants, grout, epoxies and stains have to meet Living Building standards for avoiding toxins, so I had to get the ingredients for what we used," Alms says.

The walls are painted pale pearl, actually "whitewash made with whey protein mixed in water, the same mixture Tom Sawyer used on his fences," Elwell says proudly.

Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or