DUBUQUE, Iowa — As a child, Rick Pottebaum’s summers consisted of feeding livestock and palling around with siblings and friends in a crudely constructed clubhouse in the woods.

The 12-foot-by-12-foot structure built with scraps of lumber, tin, shingles and carpet featured a potbelly stove and yard lights run off a tractor battery. It was accessible by crossing a makeshift bridge of boards nailed to telephone poles laid across a creek.

“If we weren’t in school or doing chores at home, we were at the clubhouse,” Pottebaum told the Telegraph Herald . “It was like the ‘Little Rascals’ all over again. We’d drive down in the afternoon (on all-terrain vehicles), play around at the clubhouse, go out and feed the livestock and spend the night down there. We had a small wood stove in it, and more than one time we put a chimney fire out. We would be in there with negative 30-degree wind chills.”

Today, Pottebaum, 50, and his company, R&L Landscaping & Construction of Dubuque, are building elaborate, insulated playhouses and cabins in the trees with shingled roofs, colonial-style windows, trap doors and electricity.

Treehouses have evolved from simple, ramshackle creation of scraps of lumber in a gnarled old tree built by fathers, sons and neighborhood kids to custom-designed summer and weekend retreats for kids and adults alike.

“Part of it is the adults who grew up building treehouses in the ’50s and ’60s, even younger adults, want a piece of their childhood back that they can share with their kids,” Pottebaum said. “They want something they had as a kid, but they want it better. They want to modernize. The parents want a comfortable spot for themselves to be able to go out there and enjoy it with their kids,” and have peace of mind that it’s safe.

Pottebaum last spring built an $18,000 treehouse in Dubuque that stands 10 feet off the ground. It was styled to match the owner’s house with a flying gable roof. It features a small kitchen with shelving in the rear, a ceiling fan, a bucket on a pulley, front porch lights, swinging hammocks, a knotted climbing rope and monkey bars underneath a entrance ramp.

“They want that old-school treehouse design and idea, but they want modern safety railings … remote-controlled ceiling fans, a fire pit and electricity,” Pottebaum said. “We’re talking insulated doors, windows and floors, insulated roofs, electric space heater, escape hatch out the floor out the back with a rope that leads to a sandbox below. Kids are sleeping in them,” some seven days a week until the weather becomes too frigid.

In the past 10 years, his company has built four such structures. The first three were built in 2007 and 2008, “before the economy crashed,” but has recently seen renewed interest for custom, deluxe treehouses.

“We’re getting about two to three inquiries a year,” Pottebaum said.

He attributed the increasing interest to an improving economy and recent popularity of the Animal Planet show “Treehouse Masters.”

“It’s the first thing they ask me, ‘Can you build like Treehouse Masters?'” Pottebaum said. “I say, ‘How deep is your pocketbook?’ He’s not building anything for less than $100,000.”

The show follows world-renowned treehouse designer and builder Pete Nelson. The series documents the work he and his team of craftsmen — including his son Charlie — do to create incredible homes and businesses in nature’s canopy.

Nelson’s company specializes in building luxury backyard treehouses, from one-room studios to multi-room structures complete with running water, bathrooms and kitchens.

City of Dubuque building inspector Mike Sievers said the Building Services Department has received about a half dozen inquiries in the past two years about building requirements for treehouses.

“I think the TV show that came out has sparked interest in people wanting to do it,” Sievers said.

He said the city typically receives a couple of inquiries per year about treehouses.

However, there are no building codes that pertain to treehouses, Sievers said.

“If it’s part of a tree — supported by the tree itself — then we don’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “If it’s on stilts, we would not consider it a tree fort and would be a normal ancillary structure on the property, and that would have to meet code requirements. Generally speaking, anything under 200 square feet isn’t subject to permits or general requirements under the code.”

Dan and Cori Lawler didn’t grow up with a treehouse in the backyard. But when their 9- and 10-year-old sons pleaded for one, they decided that if they were going to do it, they were going to do it right.

“We wanted something structurally sound,” Dan Lawler said. “Something that gives you peace of mind and is comfortable for the whole family.”

The couple used the treehouse at Jumble Schoolhouse Cafe in Asbury, Iowa, as a template and took to Pinterest for inspiration and guidance on a design. Each member of the family drew their ideas on a piece of paper, and together whittled down what was feasible and not.

The Lawlers would not share how much they spent to build the treehouse, but Pottebaum said a modern-day treehouse much like that of the Lawlers starts at about $20,000.

Each member of the family pitched in in building the treehouse, including the kids, making it a family project. The spindles of the treehouse’s railing are made of sticks the family collected while hiking.

The end result is a 10-foot-by-10-foot playhouse on stilts nestled next to a large maple tree that branches into and grows through the treehouse. Its stairs wrap around the tree and lead to an L-shaped deck with room below to hang hammocks.

Noah, 10, and Ryley, 9, said the treehouse has become the perfect neighborhood hangout spot and location for game nights and sleepovers — even family dinners — and provides an ideal setting for Nerf gun wars.

“It’s nice to just bring the family together in a space separate from the hustle and bustle and distractions of the house. It’s family time,” said Cori Lawler. “And, it’s rustic.”

Dan agreed.

“It’s like camping in the backyard,” he said. “You hear the squirrels in the tree. It’s a nice little peaceful getaway for the kids.”

Next up on the family’s list: A trap door.


Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Telegraph Herald.