Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A month in the trees

An unexpected turn of events at work gave me an opportunity to spend some time in the treehouse this summer. I headed to the tree in mid June, and left in mid July. This gave me plenty of time to make the place a little more livable.

The structure was still up in the tree, and there was very little sign of mice. We'd spent a good amount of time on the last trip closing up any obvious holes, and it seemed to help. There was a bit of mouse sign here and there, but it was hard to tell if it was new, or if it was something we missed the last time around.

One of the first things I did was build a ladder into the wall going up to the loft. While this seemed like a great idea, it is amazingly awkward to climb a vertical ladder like this, and getting in and out of the loft wasn't much fun. I ended up using a normal ladder to access the loft for most of the stay.

I spent at least a day shoving steel wool into any crack that would light in. Apparently it's a good deterrent for mice, as they won't chew through it. I did most of the chinking around the rafter blocks. It seemed easy until I got to the blocks on the high end of the roof, at which point I had to lean through the windows to chink from the outside.

Next on the agenda was getting all the windows screened in. For the lower windows I used the expandable screen inserts you can pick up at Home Depot. For the upper windows I built aluminum framed screens from a kit that I also found at the Depot. It took several nights to get everything secured well enough to keep the majority of the bugs out. It was a bit trickier than I expected, but being bug free was really nice. I'd forgotten just how buggy southern Indiana can be in the summer.

I spent a large amount of time painting the windows. The upper windows weren't too difficult, as I just needed to prime and paint the trim. The lower windows were a real chore, requiring scraping, sanding, washing, priming, and painting. I also caulked to lower window casements to prevent water, smart bugs or mice from coming in. I suspect I made 7 or more passes for each of the lower windows to get them completely finished. Buying brand new windows didn't seem like such a bad idea, in hindsight.

One night as I was enjoying my new bug-free environment, a large thunderstorm blew through. I was in the loft watching the trees and treehouse move erratically in the wind, when an amazing bolt of lightening hit a tree about 200 feet away. It was quite an experience, one I hope not to relive any time soon. After sleep finally found me, a large crashing noise woke me up a bit later. In the morning I discovered that the strike had blown the tree apart midway up its trunk, and it had eventually buckled at that location. The upper portion had come crashing down toward the treehouse making an amazing noise as it whipped through the leaves of surrounding trees. It certainly was an exciting night.

Next I put the finishing touches on the skylight. I had to modify the original Home Depot skylight a bit to allow it to open. It originally was sealed to the frame, and on the previous trip we had separated the frame from the window material. We'd installed frame in the roof and made a rough wooden cap to cover the opening. I managed to use some aluminum flashing and a lot of caulk to modify the upper portion of the skylight in such a way that it fit like a cap over the opening, and was easy to lift up and remove. This gave me some light in the loft, and easy access to the roof.

It was amazing how much light such a small skylight afforded, and it was a lot of fun to lay in the loft and peer upwards into the canopy of the tree. I was amazed to see squirrels playing around at the very highest points of the tree.

Next I turned my attention to making a kitchen area. I had brought a small stainless steel sink and an RV range top with me from Colorado. My friend Ted had picked up the sink second hand for a project that never panned out, and I found the range top at a surplus RV center. The RV center seemed like a great place to find treehouse related items, I'll probably spend more time there in the future.

For building material I used plywood from the Depot, and a lot of rough sawn lumber that was laying around the farm. I made the counter top out of plywood and "wall board". If I would have wandered around Home Depot a bit more I probably would have found and used a more appropriate material.

I rounded out the kitchen with what seemed like a thousand shelves. Even after they were all installed, there still wasn't quite enough room to store everything. I left a blank spot on one wall, and hope to find a good sized cabinet to bolt to the wall.

I haven't insulated and covered the interior walls yet. I want to make sure I solve the mouse problem first. I've heard horror stories about mice getting into wall insulation, and I'd rather avoid that if possible.

The kitchen was quite functional. The sink drained to a bucket, I'll eventually plumb it to the outside somehow. A water collection system for the roof is a top priority, it was a lot of effort to keep enough water in the place to wash dishes.

For refrigeration I used a normal cooler. Eventually I'd like to get a small RV propane fridge up there, hauling ice up to the treehouse on a daily basis was also a lot of work.

For a table I used the platform Nate and I had built as the table top. It's hinged to the wall, and swings out of the way when necessary. There's a central leg that gets clamped to the platform. The table should seat four, although I only have two appropriate chairs at the moment. The view from the table is quite nice.

In the southwest end of the treehouse I set up two camping chairs, and used a storage container for a coffee table. This seemed to work out well, although I eventually want to make a wood tabletop to fit over the plastic container. That should give it a better coffee table feel.

One big issue that came up was various rodents chewing on the T-111 siding material. I was awakened many nights by very loud chewing noises. After about a week of trying to discover the source, I eventually spotted a squirrel chewing on the side of the tree house, and a day later I found a mouse chewing near the roof.

A bit of web research seemed to point out that the glue that is used to make the siding has enough salt content that various animals enjoy chewing on it. It seems like the manufacturers would try to combat this someway. Your siding product shouldn't be tasty to animals.

Regardless, one solution is to use hot pepper spray to help deter the hungry rodents. I found some at Home Depot, and after a week of using it I had no more nocturnal chewing. Apparently you need to re-apply it often, so I'm not sure how long that will help. Right before I left I applied a fresh coat, let it dry, then put a clear wood sealer over the top. I'm hoping this will lock in the hot pepper a bit, and also protect the siding from any further weathering. I may need to paint the entire structure, something I'm not looking forward to after the window experience.

Eventually real life called me away from the tree, so I closed everything up and headed back to Colorado. I may be able to slip back to check on things in the fall, or I may have to wait until the spring. Either way I'm already eager to get back, I really enjoyed my time in the tree.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Spring Trip

Kristen and I headed to the treehouse late in April to see how it wintered.

We opened the place up, and took a look around. There wasn't any apparent water damage on the inside. It did appear that the siding on the rear of the treehouse was aging prematurely due to water running off the roof, hitting the trunk of the tree, then splashing back onto the siding. Nothing major, just some discoloration of the T-111.

The big surprise was the amount of mouse feces inside the treehouse. Being 16 feet above the ground, only attached to the tree via chains, I really didn't expect to have mouse issues. Even though there wasn't anything of interest to them in the treehouse, they appeared to have spent a lot of there spare time in there. We swept up, and unpacked our luggage.

A few small trees had fallen nearby, so we spent some time cleaning up the area. We also cut down one dead tree that looked like it could fall into the treehouse if things went badly.

One of the goals of the trip was to get a door installed. The original plan was to have it swing outwards, but without a landing near the door, it would have been difficult to hold it in place while it was being attached. Instead we installed it so swung inwards. While this was easy to do, eventually we want to flip it around. Installed the way it is now, it's difficult to reach the door handle from the ladder, and you have to keep a pretty good area clear on the inside for it to open completely.

We'd pulled all the boards off the non-windowed rough openings in preparation for installing the windows. An enterprising bird decided that the treehouse was a great place to build a nest, and snuck an amazing amount of moss, leaves, and bark in while we were off doing something else. The bird filled up one of our rain hats with the stuff, and sprinkled a fair amount around the place as well.

The remaining windows that needed to be installed did not have any casements. I'd debated hinging them some way so that they could swing inward. I couldn't figure out a good way to do it without consuming a lot of interior room, so instead I opted for a solution that would let me just remove the windows easily. The thought was that I could remove them and put screens in their place during warm weather.

To do this, we cut four trim boards sized appropriately so that they formed a lip that prevented the windows from falling outward. I temporarily used two screws to hold the top and bottom of the windows against the trip boards. I'll come up with a better long term solution down the road.

The newly installed windows looked good from the outside. I'll need to eventually paint the trim boards, they're pine, and won't last long if exposed to the elements. For that matter, the lower windows also need to be re-painted, they're in pretty bad shape.

I realized afterwards that the window solution that I chose will have issues if water runs down the window. It'll get trapped behind the trim board, and eventually leak into the interior. I might be able to solve this with an angled sill board that will cause the water to run back to the outside.

Kristen and I slept in the treehouse for 4 nights. Every night around 3 am, something would jump onto the roof, scurry around, then jump back to a tree trunk. Kristen was a little worried, especially since she was near the windowless rough openings. Luckily nothing jumped in and ate us.

We also weathered a few rainstorms and one particularly windy night. I awoke on the windy night to the treehouse swaying a lot more than I expected. It was swaying enough that the roof was colliding with one of the trunks of the tree. It wasn't anything too terrifying, but still surprising.

It was great finally getting to spend some time in the treehouse.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Strange Weather

Southern Indiana has been experiencing some interesting weather lately. A month ago or so strong winds managed to knock down a good number of pine trees on various ridges around the farm.

A few weeks later, everything got coated in a layer of ice. Luckily it appears that the treehouse is still up in the tree. Our friend Tommy swung by the place and snapped these pictures.

Now it looks like Indiana and Ohio just experienced a record snowfall. If the treehouse can survive these events, I'm confident it'll stay up in the tree for at least a few years, hopefully longer.

I'm planning on heading back to the farm in April for a long weekend. It'll be fun to see how things weathered over the winter.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No Leaves!

My sister and brother-in-law stopped by the treehouse site recently and snapped a picture. Things look a little different with no leaves on the tree!