Treehouse designer Kate Morel explains the process behind the commission and build of a bespoke treehouse.
Well, where did that year go, and ‘hello’, I must say it’s great to be back writing for Open Air Business once again! In this article we’re going to go through the bespoke treehouse process which is a little tricky to be fair as every project presents its own challenges and requirements. Some of the steps I cover can run concurrently and one or two can happen in a different order. Unfortunately, I can’t cover every eventuality here so, as always, do feel free to get in touch if you need clarification on any points.
In essence, there are two routes one can take when creating a treehouse development. One is to find an experienced designer or architect to create the treehouse design itself, and then find a construction contractor to build it (some architects might be able to recommend an experienced construction company, too). Another route would be to approach a company that specialises in the design and build of treehouses; this keeps the whole process under one roof, and for me at least, allows for direct and continued communication between design and construction. I’m finding this to be preferable as it controls architectural design which is especially important at the moment due to unpredictable build costs.
If you don’t have the time, resources or experience to deal with or manage such a project, a design and build company might be the best route. After all, these are, in essence, timber frame houses, a few meters up in the air, amidst mature trees in off-grid, inaccessible and ecologically protected locations.
At this stage, either way, we’re all fact finding to establish if there’s a good fit between what you, the client, wants, and what we, the supplier can deliver. There are two things I would check during our initial discussion – firstly, the location of the build so we can evaluate planning viability, and secondly the proposed project budget. It’s worth bearing in mind that some design and build companies have a minimum build value to which they can work, and it’s often underestimated how much treehouse developments cost and what’s involved, so the budget is something we need to establish straight away.
I’d also want to know what your overall goals are for the project and the business – does it need to replace a salary or two, diversify your accommodation mix, attract new customers, increase your business profile, fulfil a specific need such as a wedding suite, or generate X amount of additional revenue for your core business? I’d also want to know if you have any design ideas, because at this stage I’m already thinking ahead about the story, the guest experience, and how we could craft something that works for your business model as well as being unique in the marketplace.
On the other hand, as the client you will want to know:
• What the design/build fees are and an outline of the process/schedule
• What can realistically be produced for your budget
• Return – what treehouse rental experience does your designer have because it’s this knowledge that will add revenue value to the development
• Does the builder use experienced treehouse joiners? These builds can pose their own specific challenges and not every construction company is aware, or capable, of dealing with them
• Finally, if you have a particular design requirement, does the designer empathise with it? Creative people have their own style and you want your designer to naturally tune in to your ideas, vision or brand identity.
I don’t call treehouses ‘divas’ for nothing! Yes, they’re beautiful and can certainly ‘perform’ well, but the process can be demanding and unpredictable. Commercial treehouses have their own unique set of requirements, so if you want a top performing business it pays to work with experienced people.
Moving on, let’s assume that planning and budget look viable, the next step is a site visit from the designer/supplier to talk through the project concept in more detail and check out the potential build location for practicalities, as well as that all-important guest experience. I’d be looking at access and potential issues and cost implications, we’d also look at guest parking and footpaths as well as aesthetics – it’s not just about designing a stunning treehouse, the development has to function as a whole. We’d also talk about set up costs, utility quotes, and respective responsibilities because you might have in-house resources, such as groundwork capabilities, which would make financial sense for you to use.
Your supplier will then provide you with a schedule of how they would approach the project, costs and timeline in a written proposal, which could include the following:
• The services they will provide for you
• The responsibilities you might have agreed to take on eg. maybe you’ll be digging the utility trenches
• The process that their services will take
• The respective costs
• Third party services and indicative fees
• Payment terms/T&Cs.
This will inform you of the process that that company will take, what or who else might be involved, and what their fees will be. It’s worth noting however, that long term build costs are difficult to predict right now as they are increasing all the time.
Second site visit
Now we’re diving deeper into the practicalities of design and installation and getting a better handle on the overall project costs. There are fixed costs in a project that we can’t change, such as electricity and water, or installing a waste treatment system, and various surveys which will be required for the design process as well as the planning application.
Surveys can catch you out if you’re not aware of them and, depending on the scale of the project, can run into thousands of pounds. As such, it’s vital to get costings pinned down as soon as we can to establish if the project could deliver the required return. Sometimes I prefer to do all this before we even send the proposal and have a simple but effective Excel spreadsheet that, once accurately populated, works it all out.
Depending on the location and any planning constraints, we will now either put in a pre-app or move straight into the design process so we have a finished design to submit with a full planning application.
We should now have a good idea of the project design concept and be ready to create a design brief with you which outlines the key features and style of the treehouse development. We then create a design concept, or two, and this is where we begin to shape the wow factor – that X factor for your treehouse business. Personally, I feel it’s a crucial stage; if we don’t have a clear vision of the experience that we’re going to create right now, the final product is going to fall short of what it could have achieved, so let’s get this right.
The next stage is to take a concept and work it up, tweak it, move things around and play with it until we get to a finished design that works. Now we can create a final set of drawings ready to submit with your full planning application.
The last stage is the production of structural calculations and construction drawings, but I wouldn’t produce these until we know that the project has been granted planning permission. There can be quite an investment involved in these drawings, so I don’t see the point in asking a client to pay for them until we’ve actually got that planning permission in our mitts!
By their nature, most treehouses are built in sensitive ecological areas which often brings us up against planning issues, and quite right too, because we can’t have unregulated glamping and treehouse developments popping up all over our beautiful countryside.
There are two types of application. We use a pre planning application to test the water in locations where we feel we might be up against some planning objections. It’s an initial, less involved application to gain a response from the local planning authority that will highlight where the project might not meet planning policy, and ideally give an indication of the possible planning decision outcome.
A full planning application is a much more involved submission requiring a set of exact design drawings, ecological surveys and a site plan – plus any other supporting documents or information that the location may require; in short, everything the planning officer should need to fully assess the impact of the development and if it meets policy.
Once you’ve submitted a full planning application with the required plans and surveys that might not be the end of it; you could be asked to provide more information, drawings, or surveys, all of which will incur additional costs.
Let’s assume that planning permission has been granted (hurrah, crack open something chilled and bubbly!) it’s now time to instruct the build itself, and your design and build company or chosen contractor will now slot your project into their schedule and give you a proposed start date, they will also ask for a deposit. Note – if you use two separate companies for your design and build, should your build contractor be unsure about any aspect of the design and need architectural support during construction, the design company will charge you an hourly rate for build support, plus additional fees if they must visit the site.
There are obviously many, many phone calls, video meetings and emails throughout. It can be a protracted process with various complications, setbacks and additional costs along the way. In essence though this is the process a bespoke treehouse should take. It’s been something of a gallop, but I hope it has at least given you a better understanding. If you have any questions or would like to talk to me about your treehouse project, please get in touch.
About the Author
Kate Morel is one of a handful of people with over a decade of glamping industry experience, possessing a genuine understanding of the sector and how to create successful developments. She now channels this knowledge into her design company which specialises in experience-led alternative accommodations, becoming a creative force in the industry with projects such as Hudnalls Treehouse (one of the top performing UK treehouses) and Mallory Meadows Roundhouses. Kate’s input has been instrumental in the success of many developments and she is regarded as a leading ‘go-to’ industry specialist and ambassador.