In the future, you won't be able to see the wood for the tree houses

Mark Rowe reports on the architects who have a vision of a new generation of homes in the ultimate leafy suburb
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Between three and six million years ago, according to anthropologists, we came down from the trees. Now we are about to climb back up them: the tree house is set to become more than just child's play.

The 21st century tree house will be built with the working family, rather than Peter Pan, Tarzan or even Swampy and his fellow eco-warriors in mind.

Behind the futuristic design is an environmentally friendly project aimed at helping reforestation schemes across northern Europe and meeting the rising demand for housing as the world's population increases.

Houses are built on open land or on space created by cutting down forests. The solution, according to architect Steven Johnson, is to build tree houses among existing woodland or on open space and plant trees around them.

"This means that we are solving housing shortages and helping the environment," said Mr Johnson. "It is definitely the way forward. There isn't really any choice." He is so convinced the idea will take on he is seeking to buy some woodland to develop tree house projects.

The model prototype pictured here was designed by Mr Johnson. With a height of 150ft it will reach above most trees giving glorious views across the top of woodlands and forests.

This is the kind of home where parents can sing "Rock-A-Baby" - and really be above the treetops. The lowest bedroom stands 80ft off the ground, with glass windows fitted at every turn. The largest window faces south to obtain maximum sunlight while solar cells provide hot water. When the wind blows, a wind generator provides electricity for lights and heating; when the wind drops, a conventional connection to the National Grid ensures the power supply is not interrupted. Cooking is done in a large ceramic stove fuelled by scrap wood.

A cistern for holding water is built in the ground beneath the tree and pumps water upwards for showers and the toilet. Sewage is drained away through biodegrading toilets and a system of reed beds hung from the building's structure. The foundations are made of concrete.

Douglas fir and larch would be the main wood used. A technique known as glue-lamp, using resin, glue and steaming would gel the timbers together. The wood will be fireproof so even smokers will not be barred from moving skywards.

All this could be yours for a mere pounds 200,000. This prototype would be suitable for "extreme conditions" such as the north of Scotland, said Mr Johnson.

"The harsh climate demands this kind of design. Ultimately, we would like to design tree houses with a maximum height of 25 metres. They could be clustered together like caravan sites."

The scheme has attracted the support of Ove Arup & Partners, the engineering company behind many of Britain's most futuristic building projects, such as Canary Wharf tower in London and the new Millennium Bridge across the Thames. The tree house has been submitted to a competition in Denmark for designs for new towns.

"We hope to have a prototype built within a year," said Ove Arup project engineer Rory McGowan. Buyers will be varied, he suggested. Communities of tree houses may be built around forests to provide accommodation for those working in the timber industry, while other houses may become dream youth hostel destinations for hikers.

"The opportunities in northern Europe are huge. Forests are being replanted across the region and we have to look at how we can live in forests in a practical way. I would be the first person to knock down any idea which did not have any viability but this is a realistic proposition."

The design may be pioneering but the human yearning for trees is not: medieval monks built hermitages in trees from which to contemplate the divine order of things and the Medicis of Florence created arboreal pleasure houses at their great estates of Castello and Pratolino.

"Mass production is a good few years down the line," said Mr McGowan. "But tree houses could be here in my children's time."