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During pandemic, Austin couple expands their small house by building a treehouse retreat

When Ellie Hanlon and L.B. Deyo moved into their two-bedroom, one-bath 1,084-square-foot home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin 12 years ago, they could not have imagined a pandemic and working from home for more than a year.

More and more spaces inside their home became associated with work — she for Texas Education Agency, he as a graphic artist. The multiple gardens that wrap around the house became a refuge, but the rotting deck was not much of an oasis. 

One day while Hanlon was taking a long walk, she came across a house being remodeled and a multilevel treehouse being built along with the remodel. 

She talked to that project's contractor, Robert Suarez of Mend Services. 

That's where the idea of a Zen treehouse was born.

Ellie Hanlon has added pillows and paintings purchased at the Blue Genie art show to make her treehouse a welcome retreat.

Hanlon wanted a retreat where she could do yoga without their two 50-pound dogs jumping on her and maybe just a spot to read a book in quiet. 

The couple also wanted something that looked like a ship, because at the time, they were binge-watching several maritime-themed shows. 

Suarez found thick ropes to use as railings for the stairs leading up to the treehouse to give it that ship-like feel.

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He built the entire structure around a mature pecan tree, but the treehouse is self-supported by a steel frame rather than relying on the tree to support it. Underneath the treehouse is a cool sitting area that is shaded by the treehouse above. 

An easy staircase with a platform for observing the garden below takes you to the enlarged porch of the treehouse. It can structurally hold 12 people in this space, but it makes a nice spot for four to six people to sit and sip some wine or coffee while watching the sun move through the trees. 

L.B. Deyo and Ellie Hanlon have hosted small get-togethers in their Hyde Park treehouse. In addition to the enclosed portion, there's a good-sized sitting area on the upper porch.

Two steps lead up to the treehouse structure. Mend Services built it with all of the insulation of a regular home. "Whether we build a big project or little project, we want it to be top of the line," Suarez says.

It's wired for WiFi and electricity and has a water spigot. 

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Hanlon wanted a cool door for the house. Suarez built one that is rounded and includes a window with shutters that can be opened for air or closed for privacy. The interior walls are all handcrafted shiplap. 

An un-air conditioned treehouse could be stuffy, but Suarez built air vent holes high into the roofline. They are covered in screens to prevent bugs from getting in. The windows also are covered in screens and can be closed off to keep in the heat during the winter or in a rainstorm. 

Ellie Hanlon and L.B. Deyo wanted a cool door for their treehouse. It features a window that can be opened and closed.

During the winter freeze of February, they realized they should have come up to the treehouse. Because of the insulation, it would have been warmer than their 1948 home. 

Hanlon and Deyo thought it might be hot up there in the heat of the summer, but the shade of the tree and the ventilation keeps it cooler than in other spots in the yard. 

"It's really going to be nice when it gets hot to sit under the shade," Deyo says. 

For Hanlon, the mission of this treehouse was accomplished. She regularly does yoga inside. She's taken a nap on the cushions she's put around the floor. 

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Below Ellie Hanlon and L.B. Deyo's treehouse is a garden with brick pathways.

"You hear other noise, but it's nice noise," she says. "You are in a retreat, but connected to people around you." 

Now she can gaze down at the gardens and appreciate them without feeling like she needs to go pick another weed or plant another seed. She can watch the birds and the squirrels. She has a telescope to look at stars in the winter when the trees have dropped their leaves, which block most of the sky currently. 

"It feels really peaceful and relaxing," she says.