Building a sustainable tree house is among the most interesting, exhilarating and enlightening projects imaginable. Moreover, it is emblematic of everything we hope to achieve in sustainable architecture. How do we build in a natural setting without despoiling the very nature that supports us? This timeless design problem underlies our entire program. During this one week course students will learn how to design and build a sustainable tree house. In the studio we will talk about tree house design issues such as site, tree physiology and species, sustainable design, tree house structures and, let us not forget, beauty! In the field component of the course, students will learn how to safely construct a tree house design in real trees. While building we will learn construction techniques, suitable materials, tree house detailing and how to build safely. Students will walk away with the confidence and understanding of how to design and build their own tree house.

2015 class:
Course start time: Sunday, 5pm
Course end time: Sunday, 5pm

2016 class:
Course start time: Saturday, 9am
Course end time: Friday, 5pm



"Once again Yestermorrow has changed the way I am going to pursue my project."

"I came here with no background in building, design, or architecture and the instructors taught me everything I needed to know to be confident in the arts of treehouse building."

  • Competency Level: All Levels
  • Sterling College credits: 3 Continuing Education Units ($390 additional)
  • AIA credits: 49 HSW Learning Units

Course Objectives

  • During this one week course we will be working on a real tree house. There is no better way to learn the ropes than to roll up your sleeves, pick up some tools and begin building.
  • The building process is a wonderful way to learn not only how things are done, but why things are done.
    Building tree houses requires sensitivity to the immediate environment, attention to safety, technique and methods for construction.
  • The site is there to inform our design.  We will be engaging in a constant dialog with the trees, surrounding landscape and our design intentions to come up with the best tree house of that location.
  • Another goal for the course is help students design their tree houses back home. We do this in the studio, at a drafting desk and through working with each student individually. Working on your own design isn't required for the class; however, it can be beneficial for those hoping to build back home. For those students interested, you should take photos, measurements and notes about your site, trees and state your design goals before leaving home. It is important when we design tree houses that we have a real site. For students who do not have tree house motivations back home we will have plenty of construction projects to embrace on the class project. There will be no shortage of opportunity and fun in this class.


Throughout the course we will be covering the following principles through onsite observation, in class lectures, discussions and guest speakers.
Sustainability Defined

  • Few undertakings focus the key issues of sustainable architecture like building a tree house. It's truly a meditation on how we make manmade environments within supporting natural ecosystems; challenging assumptions and emphasizing fundamentals at every turn.

Tree House Precedents

  • Tree houses have been built by cultures all around the world throughout the ages. We will look at examples of tree house precedents around the world, tree houses we have designed and built, critique tree house designs and locations.

Silva Culture & Physiology

  • A successful tree house project involves the technical mastery and sensibility of an arborist. Mr. DeVos will open our eyes to the world of trees by talking about their nature through examples of structure, physiology, site, history and human experience.


  • Every project needs a real site. Sites have numerous characteristics that all play a major role in tree house design and consideration. We will discuss geographic conditions such as temperature, topography, wind, soils, water.

Design Principles

  • If you have every looked up design lately in the dictionary there is no shortage of interpretations. It is a subjective realm, and one that truly comes from within each one of us. Before diving into the realm we need to learn some of the universal terms that underlie our actions, motivations and decisions in our designs.


  • We are about to put a whole lot of material and effort structure up in a tree, way above our heads. How this stuff stays up there is important to learn. To do this we need to cover things like: forces, connections, material properties, types of loads and loads themselves. But wait! What are these things and how do these apply to tree houses?

Construction Methods

  • How are we going to do this? Building the tree house is one thing, but getting to the point where you can build the tree house is another. The construction method is a way to solve problems and answer questions. Do we need electrical power? How do I get up there? How do you get materials up there? How do I protect the trees and roots? Where do my tools go at night? Wait! What tools do I need?


  • Design figured out, materials in hand and you're on the jobsite ready to go. How do you build this thing and live to experience the final product? There are many types of safety devices, techniques and methods for partaking in construction in the air in a safe manner. However, safety is an attitude. It is a consciousness about yourself, your place and your friends around you. This topic cannot be covered solely in a lecture; it will be a continuous topic throughout the course.


  • It is going to cost what!?!?! Many people go into building tree house with rosy expectations of time and money it will take to complete the job. Creating a budget, schedule and getting material prices can quickly inform the cost and time it will require to build one of your designs. It is difficult exercise because all of us just want go ahead build like we are kids again. This is a topic we all need to embrace, be honest with and use as a tool, not a hindrance to our dreams.

What to Expect
In the sustainable tree house design/build course we are going to balance the classroom instruction with real, hands on construction experience. Students should expect to spend some portions of the day in the studio and the majority of time in the field participating in the building of a tree house. As a general approach, we like to do as much of teaching on site so that we show, first hand, what we are talking about. It also allows us to be outdoors and enjoy the Vermont landscape.
Sometimes, however, the weather isn't cooperative. There are rain days and there are sun days. As a result, it is difficult to establish a schedule for the week well in advance. You should expect that before the end of each day, as a class, we will discuss the plan for the following day and review the weather forecast. We will also do this in the beginning of the day in the event that something comes up overnight.
Evenings at Yestermorrow can be most enjoyable. Great food and drink, discussions around a small camp fire or heading into town for dinner and a movie are just some of the few things you can do. It is also quite common to spend time in the studio working on your projects with fellow students. Due to a smorgasbord of opportunities ahead you should plan to come to Yestermorrow well rested. We will be working full days and will also be throwing a lot of new information at you. It will be great! If something isn't going quite right with your experience, be sure to talk to one of us, or the Yestermorrow staff.

Materials to Bring

  • Camera & Sketchbook: always a good thing to have to take notes and write down ideas
  • Good Sturdy Shoes: we will be on site building so make sure you have foot wear that will sustain you on your feet all day.
  • Raingear
  • Gloves
  • Sunblock
  • Hat
  • Backpack
  • A set of hand tools (hammer, nail apron, etc..) will be provided for each student by the School for the duration of the course. Should you have your own tools, feel free to bring them if you would like; however, it is not required.

Suggested Reading

Rob Thallon. Graphic Guide to Frame Construction. This book covers all the basics of wood framing construction. I recommend this book because of it's easy to understand format and clear drawings. This book helps you learn the vocabulary of wood frame construction of which we use during the course and in tree house construction.
John Connell. Homing Instinct. Our very own, John Connell, published this book as a guide for home owners to dive into the world of creating their own home. For anyone asking, "Where do I start?," Connell has a way of making the overwhelming challenge seem approachable and fun. I recommend it because Connell has a way of empowering people through is writing, to dive in and give it a shot.
Peter Nelson. Treehouses - The Art and Craft of Living Out on a Limb. Peter Nelson has been writing about tree houses for years. His books have captured the nature of tree houses that allow us to connect to our inner child. I recommend this book because of the quality of projects Nelson has chosen to write about.
Peter Nelson. The Tree Houses Book. A sequel to the above mention book, this is Peter Nelson's coffee table book of tree houses.
Francis Ching. Architecture - Form, Space, and Order. This book is standard issue in architecture school. I recommend it here because Ching organizes the nuts and bolts of design into an organized, highly visual collection of real world examples and diagrams. If you are really curious what an example of an "a-symetrical" composition is, or interested in ten pages about "approach" and "entrance," I would suggest getting it. Otherwise, put your stock in tree house books.


Start Date: August 23, 2015
Start Date: August 20, 2016
Duration: 7 Days
Tuition: $1225
Materials: $75