Treehouse Articles

“An Arborists Advice: Be like a tree”
By Art Carey
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Wednesday, August 5, 1998

Jonathan Fairoaks hands me a glass of chilled Riesling and urges me to sit back and relax.

It’s a sweet summer evening and the view is spectacular. It’s my nature to be a gracious guest, but when the chair in which I’m planted is in a tulip poplar on a swaying platform 90 feet above the ground, sitting back and relaxing is easier said than done.

We’re in the backyard of Fairoaks’ house in a heavily wooded section of Glenmoore, Chester County. Fairoaks is an arborist, and of his recreational tree house, he says, “Haven’t seen one higher.”

Fairoaks is perched on the crow’s nest now, five feet higher up, his feet dangling. He’s in his element, completely at ease. Life on the ground is far scarier, he says. Up here, he sees things from a different perspective, literally and figuratively. This is where he comes to meditate and reflect, and to read his favorite poet, Walt Whitman.

“I love Whitman because he suggested we stay out of doors,” says Fairoaks. “That is the ultimate classroom.”

At 47, he’s a sturdily built man with a graying beard. He moves energetically, and his manner is courtly and plite. He listens carefully and often registers assent by saying “indeed” which makes him sound like an English professor. His conversation is sprinkled with sage sound bites: “We can only do too little, not too much” and “The world is the way it is so we can become saints.” Call his number and you’ll hear this message: “Subterranean acts never to heaven go. Be like a tree and let your love show.”

His name – Fairoaks – seems too good to be true, like a Dickensian charactonym. But it’s the name he was given, he swears. When traveling to other parts of the country, he often introduces himself as Jonathan Fairoaks from Penn’s Woods.

People say money doesn’t grow on trees, but that’s how I make my living, so for me it does. You’d think people would have the sense to find a hob they enjoy. I couldn’t get up in the morning if I hated going to work.”

His company is called Arborvitae Tree Care. Arborvitae is Latin for “tree of life.”

“Trees are giving creatures,” says Fairoaks. “They give us shade and turn our waste gases into life-sustaining oxygen. I regard them as animate. They know where to go. Trees are reaching to the light… They remind us that we’re connected to the heavens.”

Many arborists his age no longer climb. They don’t have the strength or stamina or courage. For Fairoaks, going out on a limb is what it’s all about, and he often saves the toughest arboreal tasks for himself. His approach, he says, is unique; he prefers saving trees to felling them. His greatest satisfaction comes from nursing an ailing tree back to health. He also enjoys sharing the delight of trees by building tree houses, often quite elaborate, and hooking up rope swings.

In his front yard dangles what must be the Mother of all Rope Swings. It is tethered to a lofty beech, to a branch at least 65 feet high. Fairoaks urges me to try it. So I scale a 12-foot orchard ladder, and with my heart in my throat, grab the rope and leap. I swoop to the other side of the valley, it seems, soaring all the way to the village of Eagle and back. The sensation of flight is exhilarating, and makes me yelp and giggle.

“You’ve got the mind of a 14-year old!” I say to Fairoaks, after jumping off.

“Thank you,” he says, taking it as the compliment I’d intended. “I figure the trees are here, so we might as well have fun with them.”

Fairoaks cobbled his first tree house over the sidewalk in front of his house in Deven when he was 6. “I learned early on that very few people look up.” He went to Conestoga and made money during the summer doing yard and tree work. His father, a former Olympic gymnast, urged him to study business, which Fairoaks dutifully did for a couple of years at West Chester.

It was not for him. So he quit and headed west, to the University of California at Davis, where he got a degree in environmental horticulture, while living in a tree house with electricity, running water, a wood stove and skylight. Afterward, he spent 10 years at a monastery, where he earned his keep planting trees, working as a mechanic, and tending the vineyards…

California was gorgeous, but Fairoaks missed the summer thunderstorms, the changing seasons, and the trees of his youth back East. Three years ago, when he bought his present house, he wasted no time in adorning the backyard with his record-setting tree house. An accountant friend, warned that it would devalue the property. Fairoaks insisted it was not only an improvement but a necessity.

“A tree house gives us the chance to experience the essence of a child, before we assumed the personality traits and affectations of an adult,” says Fairoaks. “Sometimes you need to feed your essence rather than your bank account.” 

“The High Life”
By Kathy Twardowski
Daily Local News
Sunday, Oct. 24, 1999
Chester County Living

When Jonathan Fairoaks of Glenmoore, PA was a curious 8-year-old living in Devon, PA, his love of trees was already leading him to his future. With the help of his friend, Jimmy, he built a treehouse in a maple just above the sidewalk outside his home. That would be the first of many and the first step toward a tree and treehouse business that is still flourishing today.

The first project was rudimentary. The boys used two-by-fours running parallel to the tree’s limbs and topped it with plywood.

Once Fairoaks’ parents and three younger sisters moved to another home in Devon three years later, he had his sights on an apple tree for his next tree house venture, which became a seven-year project fir gun and his father. This tree house was a bit more advanced, enclosed with a roof and electricity.

Fairoaks and another friend, Butch Ostrander, developed their own compant in 1968, while only juniors in high school, and named it J&B Tree Service.

He took his love of leaves even further by attending West Chester University for two years as a business major, working with arvorists as well as with J&B Tree Service during the summer. Finally, he decided to pursue his passion for trees and headed for California. He attended the University of California at Davis, the most reknowned school of arboriculture and dedicated his life for the next 10 years to the study of environmental horticulture. During this time, he buildt his first live-in tree house, consisting of running water, solar electric, and a hot tub.

At 27 years of age, Fairoaks felt limitless. He had moved his life to California and craced more fulfillment in his life as an arborist.

His love of climbing drove him on as well, and today, he and Stephen Redding hold the world record for climbing the tallest tree, a coastal redwood, which lives 385 feet high in Richardson Grove, near Garberville, Calif.

He remembers the feat well. With a spool of 600 feet of rope, they attacked the redwood. The first branch was daunting as it teased them from 160 feet. Redwood branches grow downward, making it a very difficult climb.

After nine and a half hours, they were half way there. Bloodied, tired, and ready to quit, they regrouped and made it to the top nine and a half hours later. Fairoaks and Redding indulged in the wine and cheese they packed, overlooking the north fork of the Trinity River. Fairoaks recalls this experience as “the most fulfilling and ridivulous thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Fairoaks traveled through California and, upon his return, learned that his professor was retiring, leaving his students with his consulting work. Fairoaks picked up the work his professor had started in the vineyards.

Trees need inspection each year to ensure safety with the growing tourist population in the Renaisance Vineyard and Winery in the Sierra Nevadas. A certified arborist is required for this work, a tree preservationist, which is an intensive program involving education in environmental horticulture, field experience, recommendations from other certified aborists, and a two-day test consisting of a written and oral exam and field identification. Fairoaks still has the privilege of traveling to the Sierra Nevadas for two months every year.

In Fairoaks’ absence back east, Redding took over his tree business until 1992, when Fairoaks received a call from Redding’s wife alerting him to a paralyzing accident his partner had endured.

Fairoaks immediately returned home to support his friend and take care of the business. Three years later, Redding walked again.

Since then, Fairoaks has created a world-wide business “Arborvitae,” Tree of Life. The intention is to bring a change in psyche to those with whom they work.

“Your psychology changes with height. We can leave our cares on the ground and move closer to heaven in the trees,” Fairoaks said.

Today, he heads an eight-man team building recreational and functional live-in tree houses. About 30 percent of the houses are live-in and 50 percent are tree houses for kids. Their work as arborists strengthens the tree because they listen to what the tree needs. The tree dictates the design. .

Anyone opting for the way of life first selects a tree which must pass a full inspection before any building can occur. If the tree is structurally sound, the planning can begin.

These recreational and live-in tree houses begin at $25,000 and increase with custom addition. Fairoaks has been working with a mother in Inverness, Calif., who wanted a place of peace that she and her daughter could enjoy. She selected a 375-year-old fir tree overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Inverness Valley. He retuned this past August to continue working on her custom-made doors and windows.

No permit is required for these houses because there is no foundation. It is such a simplistic way to live! Arborvitae has developed its own coding system to give to building inspectors and the team requires that each customer talk to neighbors about this venture. One homeowner failed to do so and the house had to come down.

Fairoaks averages 12 houses each year in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland. They also bring their creativity overseas as well. Fairoaks did allot some time for his own recreational space on his Glenmore property – 95 feet high, the tallest recreational tree house in the world.

Fairoaks has a spectacular view of the surrounding area without disturbing any surrounding trees. He spends a significant amount of time there meditating and appreciating all that surrounds him.

Arborists are the voice for the trees. Redding silently spoke in his one-and-a-half month fast, protesting park destruction, from a tree house in Forest Park. The park is in existence today in New Hope.

Fairoaks also teaches recreational tree climbing with a two-fold purpose of exercise with a view. In addition, he encourages anyone interested in learning more about building tree houses to contact the Omega Institute in upstate New York. Participants learn the fundamentals of tree house building in one week, while relaxing in dance, meditation, and alternative therapy.

Fairoaks lives by some unique philosophies, like the Greek Ideal, the Head, Hands, and Heart, which brings about balance to the human spirit. The Head symbolizes a strong mind, the Hands a strong body, and the Heart a strong emotional connection with nature. These are difficult ideals to reach, but not impossible, he says.

“Out On A Limb”
By Sandy Bauers, Inquirer staff writer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, November 24, 1995

Jonathan Fairoaks is a grown-up who lives in treehouses. He lived in one, 35 feet up, as a college student. But his present perch is a real sky-scraper.

Jonathan Fairoaks is up a tree.

And as far as he’s concerned, there isn’t a better place in the world at the moment.

“This is my element,” he says, grinning.

“Not that I don’t like it on the ground. I just enjoy it more here.”

“Here” is in the treehouse he is building in a tulip poplar in his backyard.

A tall tulip poplar. To be precise, Fairoaks is n-n-n-n-ninety f-f-f-f-five feet up.

That’s about as tall as an eight-story building.

A fresh breeze comes through, making the house not so much sway as undulate, each of the boards flexing – and creaking – independently. This tells Fairoaks (if not his guest) that things are as they should be. The treehouse needs to move with the tree, not resist it.

So is this guy nuts??

A little. And Fairoaks doesn’t dispute it.

“I don’t know how we’d exist in this life without being a little bit crazy,” he says, shrugging happily.

Fairoaks, 44, is an arborist who talks to trees. And he says they talk back, albeit in their own way. Trees, he says admiringly, are “unpretentious” and “straightforward.”

He’s president of the Philadelphia chapter of Tree Climbers International – a group he readily admits has hardly taken off, with only half a dozen members locally. They choose a tree, climb it with ropes and then maybe camp out in hammocks.

And he is – not the least – a treehouse-lover who is sitting now in the highest one in the world. “At least, it’s the highest one I know of,” he says. “But that’s not why I built it,” he adds quickly. “I built it because of the view.”

He takes out a pair of binoculars to better investigate the scenery. The entire world, it seems, is below. Very little – just a few leaves and, incredibly, an “upper” section of the treehouse – is above.

When he travels to visit trees (plus a few people) elsewhere in the country, he introduces himself as Jonathan Fairoaks of Penn’s Woods – the original name for Pennsylvania.

This usually gets people’s attention, not to mention the inevitable question.

The answer is yes. Fairoaks is his birth name. “I just think of it as destiny,” he says. He studied business at one point, but hated it. So he went to the University of California at Davis and got a bachelor’s degree in environmental horticulture.

All the while, for three years, he lived in a treehouse – this one a mere 35 feet up. It had electricity, running water, a wood stove, a sleeping loft with a skylight and a way of working itself so indelibly into his being that things haven’t been quite the same since.

Even as a kid, Fairoaks liked treehouses. He remembers being 8 years old in Devon and hiding out in his first one, which was over a sidewalk. “People would walk underneath and not know I was there,” he said. So they’ll keep right on talking. Interesting stuff.

The original treehouse was little more than two boards across some branches and a plywood platform on top.

Come to think of it, although it’s purportedly sturdier, the current one isn’t a whole lot bigger, weight being a consideration that high in the tree. Also, eavesdropping is out.

Fairoaks gets up into the treehouse by climbing a 40-foot ladder tied to the trunk of the tree. Then he hooks onto a line suspended from an upper branch and uses rope-clamping devices to shin up the rest of the way.

Visitors come up via what Fairoaks calls the “elevator” – an electric winch that hoists a sling buckled around the waist and hips.

The descent is a bit quicker. Simply strap in, step out into the air and let go, using a special arborists’ knot for a break. “It doesn’t take long to trust these knots,” Fairoaks maintains.

He says he’s not afraid, just respectful. Still, he admits, “you never get used to it. When you’re that far off the ground, you only get one chance.”

After graduation from UC Davis, he came back to Southeastern Pennsylvania, and opened a tree care company named Arborvitae – Latin for “tree of life.” He found this property, which is heavily wooded and at the end of a road in Upper Uwclan Township, Chester County, a year and a half ago.

Normal-looking bungalow

He lives in a surprisingly normal-looking bungalow – it doesn’t even go as high as a second floor – not far from the base of the tulip poplar topped by his treehouse.

Around the yard are his many tree toys – including a variety of swings, not the least of which is one that hangs from a 50-foot rope, the better to have a longer, smoother glide that the “short, choppy” lurches of most other swings. (It also, of course, swings much higher than your typical swing.)

The treehouse project started in the winter, which is an arborist’s slow time because “the trees are sleeping.”

Fairoaks hopes to make a business out of it. And while he thinks it’s great to build treehouses for kids – the traditional clientele – he really wants to build them for adults.

This is all tied in to Fairoaks’ philosophy of life, which is to eschew a mere “biological existence” and reach for something grander.

He contends that putting an adult in a treehouse brings out that person’s “essence,” which he defines as the thing children have from the time they’re born until about age 7. Then, he said, “we lose that essence, especially in this day and age, very quickly.”

‘Quiets the chatter’

Going up into a tree as an adult, “you lose a lot of that who-are-you, where-are-you-from nonsense and become a real person again. Being up there quiets the chatter inside. You begin to feel the essential urge of nature.”

The houses don’t even have to be 90 feet up. “There’s just something magical about getting off the ground,” he said, and it doesn’t really matter how far.

Fairoaks is hard at work in his own treehouse. For the last week or so, he’s been up there every night. He works until it’s too dark to see, then stretches out in a hammock and contemplates the stars from the closer vantage point.

He’s keeping the current treehouse rustic. No water or electricity, although a small lantern is a possibility. That and, come to think of it, a little framed picture, he says, tapping a spot on the tree trunk where it would hang.

Fairoaks isn’t sure yet what the picture will be, but “it might be Walt Whitman. I like him, and I know he would enjoy it up here. Of all our authors and poets, he probably epitomizes the idea of an adult who has reclaimed his essence.”

For now, though, he has two small chairs and a table, plus a lidded trash can to store his tools.

Fairoaks unpacks a small picnic he has hoisted up, and continues with his favorite subject.

“I really think,” he says, “there is a connection between people and trees that, in this technological society, we don’t really want to own up to.”

It seems to him that going up into a treehouse from time to time would cure that, and so much more.

He ticks off a few more of the reasons on his list to go aloft, and then brings the discourse to a halt, thinking better of it.

“Some things transcend words,” he says, “and maybe that’s the best reason to do them.” 

“These Tree houses Aren’t Just for Kids”
Inside & Out, Sierra Home And Landscape,Spring/Summer 2004
By Heidi Emmett

Want to get a little closer to heaven? Climb the tree in your backyard via a wooden staircase of ladder. Enjoy chirping birds and the rush of wind in your own custom-made tree house by Jonathan Fairoaks.

Taking care of pine trees at father’s nursery and his gymnastic skills helped put Fairoaks on the path building treehouses as a career. Fairoaks built his first live-in treehouse while studying Environmental Horticulture at UC Davis eventually becoming a certified arborist.

When you think your children deserve a one-of-a-kind structure, Fairoaks can build your dream treehouse in about two weeks. Deciduous and conifer trees are both good for treehouse building, although conifers tend to drip pitch (sap). Tree age is not important; often a young tree (20-50 years old) can be used.

If your treehouse design is larger than 200 square feet, it will require a foundation and building permits. Structural weight is also a consideration. The tree’s height, size, location, soil, and materials used all need consideration. The tree’s structure dictates how Fairoaks builds the treehouse’s supporting framework. Usually, floating mounts are used. This system allows the treehouse to be suspended and to move independently of the tree. Sometimes, ground supports are also needed. Stairs are not required. Ladders afford an inexpensive entryway that can be taken down or pulled up for privacy and security. Rope ladders, ramps, and cable trolleys are other possible means of entry. Once the supporting structure and platform are in place, the treehouse itself can be built.

Fairoaks works with the owner to make each treehouse unique. Colorful trims, stained glass windows, zip lines, and hammocks, are just a few of the items that can be used. Electricity can also be added. Treehouses are NOT just for kids. Go to Jonathan Fairoaks’ website at to see what he can help build for you.

“The Tree Man Climbeth”
By Christina Alex, Main Line Life Staff
Main Line Life
December 14, 1995

Devon native seeks to restore a child’s delight in treehouses – for adults

“I’m not afraid of heights. I just respect them,” says Jonathan Fairoaks, looking down 95 feet from his back-yard treehouse in Glenmoore, Chester County, over miles of country interspersed with homes. Higher than 35 feet, he says, it’s all the same.

The 44-year old arborist has just climbed a tulip poplar with a 40-foot ladder and ascenders for his hands and feet.

Lest you think this technique dangerous, Fairoaks’ Esterlon synthetic climbing ropes pass a 7000-lb test and are stronger than steel. For other visitors – journalists and such – a harness strapped around the waist and pulleys will ensure an interesting ride.

Climbing trees is old hat. “We do this every day,” he says, referring to himself and his five employees at his Devon tree business Arborvitae, which serves many Main Line customers.

He and his friend Butch Ostrander, from Berwyn, began a similar service in high school. Now Ostrander works as a roofer, but Fairoaks hopes he’ll help with the treehouses he’s starting to build.

It all began in Devon when Fairoaks laid some boards across a tree when he was eight and hid up in his little treehouse right over the sidewalk. “Nobody knew I was there,” Fairoaks says.

He has to build two more before Christmas, one in Penn Valley and one in Westtown. One will be a two-story, incorporating a swing set, a jungle gym and a little porch. For the kids, of course. “That’s what they say, but who knows?” Fairoaks says, with a laugh.

For adults, climbing trees presents a novel way to get in shape. You can work out all your muscles, see a beautiful view and slide back down. “It’s much better than a treadmill,” says Fairoaks.

Afterward the tree will massage you – Fairoaks pushes his back up against it “to share energies with the tree.” This Walt Whitman aficionado suggests a book of poetry to complete the picture.

He does this workout every day “I don’t have any trouble sleeping at night.”

But maybe that’s due to the feelings generated by being so high up away from the world’s troubles. “It makes me feel able to leave behind the earthbound nonsense and experience a different kind of freedom.”

In September Fairoaks and others are conducting a four day seminar at Omega Institute in New York where the group will – what else? – build a 10-foot and 35-foot treehouse.

Fairoaks can put a tree fort up in three days, but one with a conventional roof, wood stove, running water and enclosed in large plate-glass windows like the one Fairoaks lived in during college at U.C. Davis, took three years to build. “The stove was toasty,” he remembers, during the long rainy season, and a little elevator similar to the pulley system in his treehouse now pulled up firewood and people.

Majoring in environmental horticulture, Fairoaks then became certified as an arborist and spent 10 years consulting for the wineries in the Napa Valley before returning east. He consults there in winter while the trees are resting here, he says.

Then there’s the question of the name. He introduces himself as Jonathan Fairoaks, a moniker given to him by his minister with the idea that people generally become identified with their names. His family name is Schaberg – he had it legally changed in 1978. “My father’s a businessman. I told him it was for business reasons,” he says.

After trying just about everything, meditation, yoga, drugs, he found the Fellowship of Friends, a school similar to the Quakers. They believe that everyone has a seed of a soul inside them, not yet developed. “I look at it like it’s a garden. If everyone had a fully developed soul, the world, would be a better place to live.” Fairoaks thinks that’s where the treehouses come from. “Treehouses are not something our personality can build… they’re usually a whim, for fun. They’re much more connected to one’s essence. To create a soul one has to go back to one’s essence and be aware of it.”

And help others do the same. As president of Tree Climbers International’s Philadelphia chapter, an exclusive group of six, he sometimes teaches people to climb trees. “Fear can be overcome,” he says.

They start with a rope demonstration. One woman got halfway up and wanted to stop. Fairoaks told her that it was the same distance up as down, so she continued. “Once she got up she was fine.”