46 WINTER/SPRING 2016 MARIN AT HOME
“I’VE CHANGED THE WAY I used to build,” 33-year-
old tree-house-maker Dustin Feider says, indicating a
320-square-foot dwelling he has crafted within a magisterial
oak amid 165 hilly acres outside Healdsburg, an hour north
of Mill Valley.
His futuristic spaceship-like assemblage includes a star-shaped meditation deck made of Douglas fir, a sleeping loft
with a floor of sustainably harvested chichipate wood from
Argentina, a hammock made of netting and a diaphanous
watertight 12-foot-diameter geodesic dome of high-density
recyclable polyethylene “milk-carton” plastic, all of which
seems to have sprung forth naturally.
It is a bouquet of materials and experiential possibilities
for the owner, banker Jeff Baird, his wife and two young
daughters, who used the tree house regularly on weekends
before their main house was built. The Bairds could barely
wait for the structure to be finished before clambering up its
ladder to take in expansive views over meadows and woods.
When it was completely ready, they spent their first night
on the property inside their quirky observatory in the sky.
Feider, a furniture maker at heart, was drawn to his new
craft at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where as
part of his thesis he examined unusual resource-saving tree
houses inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s compact geodesic
dome. “But I had no idea how to go about building one,”
he says, until he attended a conference about tree houses and
learned some tricks from actual builders. Without that input,
his first structures might have been like fixed furniture, built
with bolts, trusses and posts.
Now, with as many as three dozen tree houses behind him,
and a lot more experience, “I suspend them using cables so
that they can move as easily as the host trees do, without
harming them,” Fiedler explains. “A tree is also living and
needs to move freely and bend along the full length of its
branches. If you introduce a fixed point such as an attached
tree house, you cut a tree’s flexibility by half, and in extreme
wind conditions it can crack.”
According to Feider, deciduous trees move the most, and if
structures are suspended within them, they rock gently “like
boats in water” when the wind picks up.
“A suspended house is thus more dynamic than a fixed one
and allows for directional movement. It also lets tree house
inhabitants feel as if they are cradled in a tree,” Feider says.
With the safety both of the tree and of people being par-
amount, Feider does use bolts when they are essential, but
he makes sure that “the large cylindrical plugs of 41/45 steel
are only tapped six inches deep into the outer surface of a
tree,” he says. “The bolts are thick and will not rust inside
or weaken a tree.”
Hanging structures that are prefabricated on the ground
or in Oakland at Feider’s O2 Treehouse workshop (so called
because trees give us oxygen) are then pulled up on site “like
lanterns” and hung between conifers. Priced from $15,000
to $85,000, these prefabricated tree houses are less expensive
than conventional ones and can be installed more quickly,
Feider and his small team of experts are now so adept
at building their structures in every kind of tree that they
“scamper about effortlessly in the air during construction,”
For several years, Feider worked in Los Angeles, San Diego
and even the Southern California desert, until one day it
dawned on him that he needed to move closer to the giant redwoods up north, where his suspended structures could be positioned higher than ever before. “Up here, a geodesic structure
floating a hundred feet above the ground is not impossible,”
he says. “I am looking for a client to share that dream with.” n
Top: A stiff ladder
leads up to Feider’s
deck for the Bairds’
Healdsburg tree house.
Above: In another section of the complicated
structure, a geodesic
dome made of recyclable plastic diffuses
the afternoon sun.