Here at Eco Brooklyn we are making plans to build a backyard treehouse as part of our ongoing experimentation with living walls and salvaged materials. We have so much great wood it makes a lot of sense to offer a back yard treehouse service to New York families. It’s actually more like a shed on stilts connecting to a platform on an old tree.
Fig 1: A quick model of our proposed backyard treehouse
Since it’s always possible for neighbors to have issues with the construction of treehouses we decided to make sure that everything we are going to do is by the book, and that includes staying within permit guidelines. This seems like a relatively simple thing to do, but as other people who have built treehouses in Brooklyn have found, it can be quite a task just determining what the restrictions are, let alone following them.
The first step we took to find building restrictions was to delve into the “2008: The City of New York Building Code.” Here we found that, “It shall be unlawful to construct, enlarge, alter, repair, move, demolish, remove, or change the use or occupancy of any building or structure in the city.” (p. A-12 28-105.1) There is a section in the building code that refers to work exempt from permits which includes emergency work, minor alterations, work performed by a public utility, ordinary plumbing, and installation of signs.
It’s not clear at all form Article 105 – Permits where treehouses stand as far as permitting, leaving us to assume they must be permitted by law. Table 28-112.2 wherein it states that a permit for a temporary shed would require a $130 permit spurred this assumption on.
The second step was to call the NYC Department of Buildings. When we finally got a hold of someone in the office the conversation went like this:
Intern: Hello, Sir. I am trying to find out how to get a permit to build a backyard treehouse.
Commissioner: Who told you that you need a permit for that?
Intern: No one. I was just worried that I may need a permit and I want to comply with the law for my neighbor’s sake.
Commissioner: Well you don’t need one. (Hangs up)
So there you go. Apparently we are allowed to build a treehouse of any height and weight without regard to electric or plumbing. As we were not allowed to explain the extent of the treehouse, we were still unsure if we would need a permit for our specific situation, or how far we would be allowed to go before our treehouse was no longer considered a treehouse.
A quick Google search on NY treehouses will bring up the article “Manhattan Treehouse Survives Legal Fight.” This article describes the fight to keep a treehouse in a historic landmark district in Manhattan. The conclusion was that the treehouse had to be made a landmark itself to be allowed to stay in such a district, which happened for the lucky owner.
In an attempt to zone in on Eco Brooklyn’s area a “Brooklyn treehouse” search was done. This brought up the article “A Treehouse Grows in Brooklyn.” In this article an artist named Alexandra Meyn explains her experience with staying within permit restrictions to the New York Times, “There were other lessons, too — trickier things like how to get around the city building-permit requirement (make the treehouse just small enough so that it qualifies as recreation space).”
Without any specifications on this “recreation space” we decided to post to brownstoner.com. Here we received another take on treehouse laws. The response we received equated treehouses to sheds. The response was, “Treehouses are subject to the same rules as sheds; you don’t need a permit if they are less than 120sf, under 10ft high, at least 3ft from property lines, are built in the backyard, and if you are in a landmark area, are not visible from the street.”
This is clearly a different interpretation on the law than Ms. Meyn who had a 17ft tall treehouse, but restricted it to much smaller square footage than a shed would have allowed.
As a NY green contractor we understand that building code sometimes does not take into account its implications on green building techniques. We would like to offer a tree house building service using salvaged wood and living walls, but apart from the shed definition we are still a little unclear as to the legality.
We plan to follow the specifications from our good friends at brownstoner.com for the Eco Brooklyn Green Show house treehouse., but based on our prompt conversation with the DOB commissioner, which we interpret as, “Leave me alone, we have more important things to worry about,“ if a customer is interested in going outside of those boundaries we will find a way to make it happen so that it is safe and keeps the neighbors happy.
Fig 2: This is the salvaged wood we will be using to build the treehouse
Whether we do it exactly to code or not, it seems that this is one of those things so connected to childhood freedom that as long as it is safe and doesn’t bother anyone it is ok to fly under the radar a bit.