It was a solution to a problem — simple enough to be suggested by a child.
A great white oak tree died and left an unsightly stump in Daniel Debow’s backyard last year, leaving behind the prospect of a two-phase takedown and costly removal. So his son said, “Why don’t we build a treehouse instead?”
That easy. Michael Greenwood, owner of Greenwood Studio, lived down the road and was a longtime friend. “I’ve known him my whole life and I know he’s a gifted woodworker and carpenter and creator and an artist and designer,” Debow says, ticking off his many talents.
“And so we said, ‘Could you go ahead and build something?’”
“And of course we talked with our neighbours beforehand to make sure it was OK,” adds the entrepreneur and tech CEO. “We also were very sensitive to have him design it so that it would feel like it was a sculpture, or work of art.”
Greenwood accepted the challenge and, in fact, relishes treehouse projects in particular. There are so many variables working with trees — organic foundations that often move and grow and change with the seasons — and engineering concerns in building elevated spaces in them, he says.
“I love it because it’s super-creative,” Greenwood says. “I think a lot of what I do is impacted by the people I’m doing it for and also the environment in which it’s going to live. It’s trying to meet the needs of the people: what do you want to achieve from this, how old are your kids, what do you want to do?
“And you’re really subject to the location — you want to create great views.”
The Debow treehouse took shape as a circular space that wraps around the tree, with vertical slats that allow splashes of sunlight to pour in, topped with a delicate feathering of shingles. “When you go in, you can touch the bark of the tree,” Greenwood says, “and you’re in this very fantastical, out-of-this-world space.”
Debow says it’s become a conversation piece for his guests, and the first place that visiting children want to go.
“We have a glass wall in the back so you can see it as soon as you come in the house and people always ask about it,” he says. “And I’m not kidding, most people say, ‘Wow that’s an amazing piece of art’ — they think we have this wooden sculpture built around the tree. The way Mike designed it, you can’t really see the entrance until you come up onto it.
“It’s just visually beautiful and took what was kind of an eyesore — this giant tree stump — and turned it into a beautiful piece of art.”
While the Debow treehouse was crafted with a sculptural elegance and sophistication — perfect for its urban environment — Greenwood’s Muskoka project tilted another way.
“A guy I’d known for a long time had a beautiful property up in Muskoka and he asked me about (treehouse projects) and said he’d really like one for his kids,” Greenwood says. “His oldest is autistic and he really loves rollercoasters and climbing and jumping — all these different physical things.
“So we worked on designing an integrated treehouse. He wanted it to be inspired by an Ewok village, so it was a big project that was three or four months’ worth of work, with three or four guys.”
The Muskoka project is less “treehouse” and more “treeworld,” suspended in the lush canopy of the Muskokan woods with slides, connected platforms, bridges, ladders and a climbing wall. While undoubtedly a majestic playground for childhood imaginations, Greenwood made sure there was a little something for their adult minders as well.
“The third platform still has a big slide on it, but it also provides a beautiful view of the lake,” he says. “It’s a great place to hang out, very adult-friendly, where you could sit and have a drink of wine and watch the sun set.
“We definitely try to bring those magical, exploratory spaces back to adults as well. When you build a treehouse, it’s kind of inevitable.”
Greenwood notes, with a laugh, that he doesn’t have his own treehouse yet. The eldest of his three boys is turning 11 years old — “So now I can harvest them as labour” — and soon he expects an elevated treeworld of his own at his cabin up north, an area filled with big white pine.
Broadly speaking, however, Greenwood advises treehouse clients that the smallest project would start around $10,000 and progress quickly from there, but he works mostly with relatively local and natural materials for beauty, durability and longevity — which adds to the price. His treehouses stay up year-round and are maintenance-free — he avoids finishes, which tend to degrade and flake off over time, and instead relies on top-quality natural wood that ages gracefully.
He notes that getting neighbours’ approval, and keeping them informed throughout the process, is key to avoid complaints and a dustup with the city.
Debow’s neighbours were pleased with the process and the outcome, so the father of four counts himself as a happy client. The children, obviously, are even happier.
“What do you want as a parent?” Debow says, “You want your kids outside, not on their iPad all the time. You want them exploring and using their imagination, doing collaborative play and imaginative play. There’s also a certain element of physicality: they have to clamour and climb and dig underneath — they have to do stuff.
“So I think treehouses facilitate that in a big way. Kids love their own secret spaces and they also get a sense of autonomy and independence — and all in your backyard.”