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Judy & Pete Nelson '85

Creating a Home in the Trees

NOTE: This story was produced in February 2020, prior to implementation of the college's response to COVID-19.

Pete Nelson '85 first fell in love with treehouses at age seven when his dad built him a tree-fort behind the garage at their home in New Jersey. But the real roots of his budding career in treehouses began just across the interstate from Colorado College.

Pete was a student at the time. He talked his dad into going in with him to purchase a little turn-of-the-century gingerbread-y cottage on Cooper Street in Colorado Springs, which he fixed up, lived in for a time, and flipped to make some money. Just up the street from the little gingerbread house was the coolest kids' treehouse he had ever seen. It had corrugated metal siding, pulleys to hoist kids up inside, and half-timbered trim around the old, oddly shaped windows. It got the wheels turning in Pete's head.

Pete loved carpentry and was good at it, and was looking to turn his passion into a source of support for himself and his new bride, Judy Nelson '85. Pete and Judy, an art history major, met during freshmen orientation and married after graduation from CC.

It was the mid 1980s. The hot trend in pop culture at the time was to become a ruthless, single-minded, money-making machine. Nelson, an economics major, initially thought he might go that route too, despite the fact that some of his favorite academic experiences were more focused on the outdoors and nature than money - geology field trips, Baca archeology digs, and anthropology classes.

He hatched an idea to write and photograph the ultimate coffee-table book on treehouses, found an agent to represent him, and set to work constructing his first treehouse in the backyard of the cottage on Cooper Street.

But the book, which was immediately snatched up by Houghton Mifflin publishing house, needed a centerpiece feature - something with 'wow' factor. So Pete convinced a friend who had some land on an island in British Columbia to let him build a treehouse in one of the biggest Douglas firs on the property. The Nelsons had moved to the Pacific Northwest by this time.

"The tree was enormous - five feet around! And building that treehouse was the time of my life. I loved it! We spent 10 days building all day and partying at night with a core group of 10 of my carpenter buddies, several CC alums among them, and I thought, 'I don't know how we're going to do this, but we have to do this,'" says Pete. The brain power and creativity was appealing, but also the community aspect.

"We're having these great experiences, we're bringing people together, getting into the woods, and getting to know the people around you in a better way as you work together. And those things together cemented the idea that, I've got to do this, full-time," Pete says.

Judy agreed; she was the partner in the venture and she was on board. She had already worked in an art gallery and a land-planning office and was working as a real estate agent in Seattle at the time, and was open to new adventures. "After I graduated from college at CC, I was just kind of open to whatever. Colorado College gave me the quintessential liberal arts education that could take me in any direction."

"The book was published in '94, and it got a lot of publicity. It was a hit. We got in the New York Times Magazine and Smithsonian, so people started calling us and saying, 'Can you build me a treehouse?' And that's where it really got rolling," says Judy.

Building treehouses suited Pete's nature better than his day job building single-family houses. A treehouse goes up a lot quicker than a regular or custom home and Pete is the first to admit he has a short attention span. "I found with houses that I would get bored. It would take sometimes six months just to get the permit for the house. And then it would take me a year to build it. And by the time it was framed up it would take forever to get done."

The couple decided to make the leap from building "ground houses" into treehouses, and spreading the gospel about small, artfully crafted structures constructed using high-quality materials that complement their natural surroundings.

Their decision was well-timed. A glimmer of a movement was starting in the culture at large about some of those same ideas.

"There's an excitement then about architecture and connecting to living trees," Pete says. "And there are a lot of others who had started to come along with me and help push the technology forward. It was looking viable as a real form of architecture that works, something sustainable."

After a few more books written by Pete about treehouses, all of a sudden, treehouses were hip, says Judy.

"People were starting to see them in the books, and publications were writing articles. It seemed like every spring, someone would call from one of the big publications - New York Times, Wall Street Journal - and want to do a big write-up."

Around that time, the Nelsons came across a property in Fall City, Washington, that they now call Treehouse Point and also home. A four-acre forested property along the Raging River 30 minutes east of Seattle, the Nelsons' vision for a life building and sharing their love for treehouses was about to come full-circle. They have now built seven treehouses at Treehouse Point which are available for overnight rentals, and the property is a retreat and private event center which hosts weddings, reunions, and other gatherings. Judy runs the operation as the innkeeper and business manager, while Pete is principal of the treehouse design/build company and was involved in their other main pursuit: the "Treehouse Masters" television series, which wrapped filming in 2018 after 11 seasons.

In 2012 Animal Planet began production of the show, which follows Pete and his crew around on treehouse builds across the country. The Nelsons recently opened their second treehouse retreat: Treehouse Utopia in Texas Hill country. They partnered with restaurateur Laurel Waters to build four luxury treehouses along the Sabinal River to create a retreat built for couples.

Along the way, the Nelsons' passion for treehouses morphed into a family business. Their son Henry is a skilled carpenter who often travels with the rest of the crew on builds. His twin brother, Charlie, is also a full-time carpenter with the treehouse business, as well as a musician. Their daughter, Emily, is at the helm of the treehouse HQ. In addition to overseeing project operations, Emily founded their online store, Be a Tree, where customers can purchase treehouse plans, lifestyle goods, and the hardware the Nelsons use in their builds. The family business also brought together Emily and her husband, Patrick, who's a lead carpenter on the construction team.

"As a family business, we try to make everyone - our clients, guests, and staff - feel at home in the trees. We believe in hospitality, environmental stewardship, and celebrating life, love, and nature," says Pete.

A tour of the property will be posted here soon!

Report an issue - Last updated: 01/03/2021