Like house designers everywhere, James “B’fer” Roth starts with the building site. Though unlike most, it’s not the soil or topography that he studies first. He looks for the right cluster of trees.
Roth, 54, is one half of The Treehouse Guys, a two-year-old design-build company based in Warren, Vermont, that constructs sturdy, whimsical treehouses for all seasons. He is the design half of the equation, while partner Chris “Ka-V” Haake, 36, takes the lead on building.
Their treehouses, featured in Treehouses of the World and other books, are as simple as a roofed room reached by a ladder and as elaborate as a multilevel fortress with windows and door frames, entryways and wide decks. Some are even multiple structures spanned via suspension bridge.
Roth and Haake formed their business to bring their distinct style to private backyards. So far, work has been primarily in northern New England. But they also are the go-to firm for making treehouses accessible by wheelchair or walker, a niche within a niche, that takes them around the country.
Both men get deep satisfaction from seeing people who have been tethered by illness, age, or other disability set free by the view from among the branches and birds’ nests. In this kind of treehouse, anyone can clamber up and find a perch. The experience leaves first-timers exuberant.
“When you see a kid in a chair – or an adult – in a treehouse, the joy meter is off the charts,” Roth said. In many of his designs, the ramps curve and turn around live tree trunks, offering the challenge of an upward climb. “My favorite part is seeing the smiles of the kids who go up it, who have never been off the ground, really,” Haake said.
The two men honed their craft while part of Forever Young Treehouses, a now dormant nonprofit started by board members of the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Vermont with one mission: constructing universally accessible treehouses.
They contacted Roth about the idea through the Yestermorrow Design Build School in Warren, where he is an instructor. Then, Roth had a shop in Waitsfield where he designed and built furniture made from peeled logs and branches. That is where he first met Haake, a New Jersey transplant who stopped by one day in the late 1990s with a question about securing the top of his yurt.
Roth’s friends and colleagues knew of his affinity for treehouses. He built his first one in the early 1980s on friends’ land in Warren, soon after graduating from Johnson State College with a fine arts degree. “I never had one when I was a kid,” said Roth. “It turned into a pretty extravagant thing.” The octagonal structure became his home during warmer months for several years. He wooed his wife there, serving dinner on their first date 20 feet in the air.
So Roth embraced the challenge and asked Haake to help with the first prototype on the grounds at Yestermorrow. The products of their long collaboration, now approaching 40 structures in 20 states, can be seen in public parks, camps, hospitals, and schools from coast to coast, including Oakledge Park in Burlington, Crotched Mountain Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire and Pinetree Camp in Rome, Maine. In 2011, Paralyzed Veterans of America recognized the men’s work with their Barrier-Free America Award.
Costs vary widely. A small backyard treehouse without ramps starts at around $12,000. Their most expensive, and largest to date, was an accessible treehouse with a winding path and several levels for a public park in Torrance, California. The $750,000 project took many years to complete and was funded by the Annenberg Foundation.
These days, The Treehouse Guys tackle three or four treehouses a year, usually booked the year before. In 2012, the summer brought several backyard projects near their homes in Vermont. In the fall, they spent a month living on a secluded property on Lake Winnipesaukee, building a private treehouse overlooking the water. The pair already has three on next year’s schedule, all universally accessible – two in Michigan, where Roth was raised, and one in Oklahoma City.
In Roth’s designs, living trees serve as the building’s primary support. “The configuration of the trees, that drives the shape and design,” he said. He prefers the hardwoods – maple, oak, and ash – but will also use healthy hemlock and pines. If there aren’t enough live trees, he looks for sturdy stumps. For auxiliary posts, The Guys bring in hand-hewn logs that they bury.
The model rarely calls for cutting down trees. Roth prefers to incorporate the existing forest as much as possible. As a result, trunks often bolt up through holes in the deck or clip a roof eave.
For the frame, they rely on pressure-treated pine to withstand weathering. But the siding is all live-edge, rough-sawn boards. The bark makes squiggly dark lines along the exterior, creating a playful, rustic feel. Windows, mismatched, sometimes tilted, and terraces fenced with an open pattern of hand-stripped branches complete their signature look. Wherever they work, their goal is to rely as much as possible on locally sourced and locally milled wood.
The enemy of treehouses is wind and bending. To account for that, supporting floor beams are connected by a bracket to a collar pounded several inches into a corner tree. A bolt slides both through one end of the arm-size bracket and through an oblong hole in the side of the collar. The hole is designed to give the bolts play and allow the house to move with the trees. “The whole notion is that it floats,” Roth said.
Through the small world of professional treehouse builders, The Treehouse Guys met an Oregon-based civil engineer who specializes in their mechanics. Once a design is complete, Roth hires him to do the calculations on bracket angles and other support specifics.
Despite these details, in many ways a Guys job site isn’t much different than any other kind of small-scale craft construction. Lumber, branches, and other materials are grouped and stacked next to power tools and large, well-stocked toolkits. Reggae tunes from a boombox set a laid-back mood. Haake’s border collie waits in the sun for one of them to throw a cloth Frisbee. And the partners joke back and forth, speaking their own language.
When Haake is maneuvering a branch that will serve as a platform brace into position, he listens for Roth to say the word “Larry.” That stands for “Larry Goodnuff,” a sort of patron saint for treehouse builders, which is code for “that will work.” The big bolts that secure the houses are “bombers.” And then there are the nicknames.
Roth picked his up in childhood. His middle name is Burton and his father – a handy fellow who built the house they lived in – explained once when Roth was small that his full name was “James ‘B’ for Burton.” Roth told him he liked the name, except for the “B’fer” part. His dad cracked up and the name stuck.
Haake got his nickname from Roth, who teased his younger helper by calling him “the caveman” when they first started working together. Haake had done some basic construction as a teenager, but he picked up most of his skills from Roth on the job. Early on, his instinct was to use physical force to make unruly parts fit together. The phrase to describe that quickly became “getting cavey,” which morphed into “Ka-V.”
Haake is now a builder with finesse. “He evolved quickly,” Roth said. He now prefers to cut wood by feel using one main tool – a chainsaw.
“I actually don’t like conventional building,” Haake said. “If I couldn’t use a chainsaw, I wouldn’t do it.”
Both men like the intuition and flexibility needed to bring Roth’s designs to life. The reliance on trees and peeled branches makes small accommodations – a notch here and there – essential. “It’s like a sculpture,” Roth said. “You’re not throwing a flat object against a flat object.
There is a serendipity to the flow of work that they enjoy. “The magic of things just finding their way into place is fun,” said Roth. “The cosmic connection, when things work out just the way you hope.”
Kristen Fountain is a writer living in Stowe, Vermont. She reports for the Waterbury Record.