Local carpenter turns playhouses into work with Natural State Treehouses

Photos: Courtesy, Natural State Treehouses

Ever just want to quit your comfortable office job, and start your own treehouse building company?

If you’re human, you probably had a similar thought at some point. And in case you weren’t aware, this kind of thing is actually possible these days – even in the middle of the recession – if you’re willing to make the leap.

We know this, thanks to Fayetteville resident Josh Hart.

Hart, who had spent eight years working at Walton Arts Center, left the company in 2011 to start his highly successful business, Natural State Treehouses.

And he’s been climbing trees and building forts ever since.

Making the leap

Hart became interested in the treehouse and play structure business pretty naturally; he was shopping for something for his own children, and wasn’t finding what he was looking for in the local marketplace.

“I started looking at what was out there, and it was a lot of pre-made, low quality, commercially-built play sets,” he said. “No one was making high quality, fun, outdoor play structures.

“I kind of filed that away and said, ‘Someone should really do that,'” he said.

Hart said it took him some time before he finally realized that someone was him.

“I grew up learning carpentry – my dad was a great carpenter,” he said. “And I have this love for the outdoors, and it all just came together at once.”

Hart said the decision to leave his job – though he was extremely happy there at the time – wasn’t as anxiety-producing as it sounds.

“Northwest Arkansas is such a unique place, it feels like you can do anything here,” he said. “It’s a great place to start a business, there’s always so much going on for someone who’s creative. I felt safe starting a business here – even in the middle of the recession – in a way I’m sure I wouldn’t have anywhere else.

Building a business

It didn’t take long for Hart’s hunch that there was a market for better-built tree houses and playground structures to prove true.

He picked up his first job within two weeks of starting the company, and he has since stayed busy ever since.

“It has really been non-stop,” he said. “We haven’t had a single break in our schedule since then, except for to take family vacations. And it’s been much busier this year than it’s ever been before.”

Hart has grown the company from a small crew to six full-time carpenters, with each crew member bringing their own unique creative element to the team.

“It’s not a normal work crew at all,” Hart said. “We have two sculptors, a custom instrument maker, a landscape architect, and a farmer. The thing they all have in common, though, is they’re all incredible carpenters.”

A few higher-profile jobs, including a custom playground built for The New School, and several unique play spaces constructed at the newly-opened Amazeum, have helped to fuel the company’s growth even further.

Hart said the structures at The New School include a covered bridge, playhouses, natural sandboxes, and play platforms designed to inspire the children’s imaginations.

“They’re big on open ended play,” he said. “Things that don’t have a theme. They don’t tell the kids how to play with them, so that’s pretty cool.”

For the Amazeum, the company built two bridges over a natural creek, a playhouse, and some natural-looking fencing and safety barriers around a waterfall on the grounds.

The process

Those large commercial projects are more of an exception than the rule for Natural State Treehouses, however.

Their bread and butter, and the thing they spend most of their time on, are tree houses and play structures built for neighborhood back yards across the region.

The size and scope, and therefore, the prices for the company’s creations, vary pretty widely. Hart said that he has built simple platforms in trees for as little as $1,000, and has created enormous tree houses with multiple rooms, electricity, and working toilets in the $20,000-$30,000 range. For the most part, though, most projects cost around $2,500-$3,000.

Hart said he starts with a meeting with his clients, where they discuss the budget, visit the site, and let their imaginations run wild.

“A lot of times, people have thought and dreamed about having a tree house for a long time,” he said. “So we’ll talk through that in a brain storm, look at possible locations, and basically throw out every idea that we can.

“One thing I really strive for is to dig down and find what is going to serve them the best, and what’s the most important thing to that particular customer and emphasize that,” he said.

From there, Hart creates a 3-D rendering of the treehouse before the build.

Sometimes, he said, clients are familiar enough with their work to just trust them to create something amazing without a lot of initial feedback.

The company focuses on locally-sourced and natural materials, and also tries to use materials with a natural appearance. “We try to use whole logs or really knotty wood so people can see the texture,” he said.

The main thing, he said, is just to create a space that feels secluded and out in nature enough that the child it’s built for feels like it’s their own.

“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “Just a good, really safe, well-built attractive space, and the imagination does the rest.”

Being big enough

In his fourth year in business, Hart said the company has so far doubled its revenue every year.

He doesn’t expect it to get much bigger, however.

“It’s pretty much reached its equilibrium now,” he said. “I think we’ll probably stay about this size.”

Hart said that an average project takes from 2-6 weeks, and that he is currently booking about 3-4 months out. So far, he said, his customers are willing to wait for their custom treehouse creation.

“People are really patient,” he said. “We have really good customers. We try to take on one project at a time, and give it our whole attention and I think they appreciate that.”

Hart said keeping the company small will ensure that he’s able to spend his days outdoors working on new projects instead being stuck in an office doing paperwork or managing franchisees.

“I want to spend my time building tree houses,” he said.

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.