Not Quite Architecture: Take to the trees: it's a high life and a natural one: Where can you build a house that is romantic, cheap and virtually free of planning restrictions? Adventurous types are branching out

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The Independent Culture
THE DREAM of living in a tree-house is as old as childhood. It is the stuff of fairy-tales, of exotic tribes hidden in unexplored rainforests, of Winnie- The-Pooh (Owl lives in a tree-house), Peter Pan, Tarzan, Italo Calvino's Baron in the Trees and 'Rock-a-bye-baby'.

Medieval monks built hermitages in trees from which to contemplate the divine order of things; the Medicis created arboreal pleasure houses at their great estates of Castello and Pratolino; Tudor ladies worked at their embroidery and indulged in gossip in their 'roosting places' among mighty English oaks. Elizabeth I not only slept in a bed at Cobham Hall, in Kent, but dined sumptuously in the three-storey tree-house in its grounds. A magnificent Grade I listed Tudor tree-house survives at Pitchford Hall, near Shrewsbury.

Perhaps the most impressive new tree-house in England belongs to Michael Michaelides, a Greek-Cypriot businessman, and his wife, Alexandra. The family runs a fish and chip shop in Plymouth called Jaws and plans to open a 'Mystic Pizza' restaurant there. The garden of their house on the edge of the city is dominated by a vast cedar. 'The tree was asking for a house to be built in it,' says Mr Michaelides, who believes that the two-storey structure is the largest of its kind in Europe.

Built with timber garnered from a demolition site, the house cost just pounds 500. It boasts a balcony, double-glazing and electricity, and will soon feature a telephone, television and big, comfortable sofa-beds. The whole construction is held together with 16in steel bolts, has withstood 70mph gales and has not damaged the cedar or restricted its growth. It is an impressive achievement, and the temptation to live there all the time must be great. That, however, would require full planning permission.

At the moment, as long as a tree-house is independently supported (on stilts, for example) or lashed to a tree with ropes or bolts around the branches, planners have little to say on the subject. But they would be concerned to hear of anyone hammering nails into trees, and will interfere if the structure is considered an eyesore. However, as most tree-houses are built in private gardens, aesthetic policing has been limited.

Complaints are usually made by neighbours concerned that tree-houses overlook their castles on the ground. Planning regulations are few and, happily, rather vague, so the arboreal architect can indulge in any and every style. The most important planning considerations seem to be the safety of the user and the well-being of the tree.

Styles vary enormously: John and Leslie Downing, a farmer and a nurse, chose Scandinavian Modern for their Suffolk tree-house, on a tiny wooded island reached by a bridge from their farmhouse. 'Some people build conservatories; we chose a tree-house in which to escape on summer evenings,' they say.

Ralph Curry is a former tree surgeon and is now a wood-turner making bowls out of pieces of fallen timber. His woodland glade in Kent is richly planted with exotic trees, including teenage Californian redwoods. But it is from two English oaks that his rough-hewn and sinewy tree-house is supported.

Everything about it is muscular. The doors are formed - with the aid of a chain saw - from slabs of oak, while the walls, floor and much of the furniture are made from telegraph poles. 'This is not exactly tree surgery,' he says disparagingly, 'it's all a fine example of the art of the wood-butcher.'

Mr Curry uses his treehouse as a workshop and, so that he can spend long days at work and play there, it includes a kitchen, a piano and large, comfortable chairs. The house continues to evolve to match the needs of its reclusive inhabitant.

Tree-houses can only become more popular; they are romantic, cheap to build and as close to nature as you can get. Built well and with proper consideration for the trees, there seems to be no reason why planning permission should not be granted. To be out of your tree is a description of pottiness, but to be in it might be the sanest suggestion for people with little money but a lot of love for nature.

(Photograph omitted)

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