Coffee Break with Treehouse Designer Daryl McDonald

In Coffee Break, we catch people who inspire us during a rare break in their busy days for a virtual coffee date. We chat about what drives their personal and professional passions, how they get reenergized at home, and what they’re currently obsessing over. 


Credit: Nelson Treehouse and Supply

Daryl McDonald has the job we all dreamed of having as kids (and we won’t lie, it’s a job some of us still dream of having as adults). A designer and project manager for Nelson Treehouse and Supply (featured on the Animal Planet show Treehouse Masters), Daryl is one of the creative minds behind Nelson’s dreamy treetop abodes. Daryl’s start in treehouse design and construction came when he started working for Nelson Treehouse in between semesters studying political science at the University of Washington. When he weighed his post-graduate options (law school vs. building treehouses), he chose his passion and hasn’t looked back. Nowadays Daryl spends most of his time helping clients with custom designs, consultations, and working on large-scale projects like Treehouse Utopia in Texas and an upcoming resort in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. When he’s not deep in construction plans or perched on a ladder, you can still find him in nature, snowboarding, mountain biking, and hiking. Read on to see where Daryl finds inspiration and what he loves most about building treehouses.

How did Nelson Treehouse and Supply come to be?

Back in the day, Pete Nelson started the company Tree-House Workshop with a partner in 1997. Around 2012, they went their separate ways and Pete started Nelson Treehouse and Supply. In 2015, we started filming Treehouse Masters on Animal Planet, and the show ended last fall. Currently, we typically have two to three jobs happening in the field at any point.


What’s one project you’ve worked on lately, that made you come alive? 

The good thing about treehouses is that every single one is different. Nelson Treehouse’s design philosophy is that the tree itself dictates the design, so when we approach a treehouse, we take inspiration from the tree first and foremost. Obviously, client requirements come into play, but every single tree is unique and that’s why we like building treehouses. That said, a project we did in the San Juan Islands comes to mind — we got to mix different types of materials and do a modern design, which is a little bit of a departure from our usual Northwestern craftsman approach.


A treehouse in the San Juan Islands. Credit: Nelson Treehouse and Supply

What’s one thing about carpentry that most people don’t realize? 

The good thing about carpentry is that it’s obviously not rocket science, but something people don’t realize is that in order to be proficient at it, you have to be thinking two to three steps ahead. You have to anticipate the next step so that your progress doesn’t end up conflicting.

Finish this sentence: good design is…

Inspirational and functional.


Credit: Nelson Treehouse and Supply

What words of advice do you have for people who want to get into carpentry and woodworking? Any tips for getting started? 

Woodworking and carpentry can get very complicated very quickly, but there are so many things you can do with just a few tools. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the beginning, but you can literally get a piece of wood and start sanding and layering and you’ve already got a project going. It’s easy to build on your successes from there. You don’t need a fully fledged workshop, the important thing is to just get started.


Credit: Nelson Treehouse and Supply

What’s your favorite way to prepare for a busy day? What about to unwind at the end of the day? 

I’m a big list maker, so I have a pretty good checklist whenever I’m coming in to a busy day. This is important as I’m the project manager for projects happening in the field and l take care of a lot of complications with people building their own treehouses and help them with their own designs. Looking at my desk right now, I’ve got eight different projects — with all this on my plate, I’d say prioritizing is the most important way to prepare, and understanding that not everything has to get done in a single day.

As for unwinding ⁠— around here, we’re close to the mountains. It’s really nice and ideal for going out for a hike in the woods at the end of the day. There’s a Japanese term, “Shinrin-yoku”, which translates to forest bathing, that I think describes it well. Basically, it’s not necessarily hiking to get a destination but rather the idea of being somewhere and taking it in. Just being where you are, experiencing the place you’re in. The mountains are amazing and we’re lucky to have them so close by.


Credit: Nelson Treehouse and Supply

What was the first place you called home? Your favorite place you’ve called home?

The first place I called home was Seabrook Beach, New Hampshire. I grew up there, five doors down from the beach with my family, including four sisters. It was a great place to grow up, being able to have a beach day pretty much anytime.

Currently, what are you…

  • Feeling inspired by: Nature. Our constant inspiration is always nature, and sometimes that translates into making structures in the trees. Biomimicry is a fun concept we like to take on—it always gets my creative juices going, being able to take something that occurs in nature and being able to translate it into human form, breaking things down to the most simple form.
  • Reading: The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. I  got it from my father-in-law and just got started on it. The nice thing about treehouses and treehouse building is that it’s a combination of several different studies in a way—we start with structural engineers, and obviously we all are carpenters. And at the other end of the spectrum we have interior designers and furniture makers; it’s a cool way to combine different fields.
  • Watching: A British Design Show on Netflix called The Great Interior Design Challenge
  • Listening to: Pearl Jam. I’ve been going back through their albums and catalogue, they have an appropriate song called “In My Tree”.
  • Snacking on: This time of year, we’re eating lots of stuff from our garden. We have a good crop of green beans right now.
  • Next on your to-do list: Going back and looking at a complication for people making their own treehouse. We have some online plans on our site, and I help people adapt it to their own tree layout and figure out how to accommodate to them.
  • On your phone wallpaper: A photo from a hike my wife and I did last fall. It’s in black and white and in a local ice cave. The edges of the ice cave look kind of like they’ve been scalloped and texture dipped.
  • The messiest thing in your life: My basement. We have a small garage back there, but it’s basically become our storage space. It’s definitely our last house project; it’s where all the leftovers of our house projects go.

Daryl and his right hand man, Rusty. Credit: Nelson Treehouse and Supply

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