Thinking of purchasing a playhouse? There’s something your children can teach you. Whether you’re planning to splurge on an elaborate Victorian, fix up the old tool shed or have your architect fashion a mini-version of your home in the back yard, remember this: Make believe.
For adults so often seduced by the wow factor, it’s something easier said than done. Minimalist-modern parents are keen to fall for pre-fab minis from companies like Modern Dwellings and Modern Cabana. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s reigning playhouse queen, Barbara Butler, caters to anything-goes parents with the most elaborate designs you can dream up. But try not to let styles (storybook? eco-chic?) or budgets (we found a tremendous range, from DIY kits in the low hundreds to $50,000+ marvels) sway you. For imaginative little ones, basic is almost always best. It’s parents who usually want all the bells and whistles.
Jackson, Mississippi-based architect Holly Gomez, who left her corporate job last October to focus on her playhouse passion, is quick to caution against getting carried away in the design process. “Their little imaginations can turn a cardboard box into something cool, so simple is often all they need,” she explains, adding that “decorating it is one of the most fun things you can do with your children, but you have to step back and realize it’s their space.”
Gomez launched her well-read blog, APlaceImagined.com, three years ago to chronicle her endless inspirations from the miniature design world. Today, she sells playhouse plans under the same business name, as well as a few complete structures that can be ordered for delivery. “After having children, it just made sense,” she says. “My dad built a playhouse for us when we were young, and I’ve always had really fond memories of that time. I wanted the same for my kids.”
Most playhouse designers agree that children need two outlets for play—physical and imaginative. What’s even better is having both in one. That concept has helped Butler’s playhouses amass one of the most fervent followings on the market, despite their high price tags (more than $150,000, for some). Those watching budgets may opt for the less-expensive, DIY route. Gomez suggests splurging on water-tight windows and treated-wood floors, then sourcing salvaged materials or adding inexpensive panels to the sides, which can be painted for more polish. But don’t be a victim of sticker shock, either. High prices usually stem from quality materials and thoughtful features that will ensure the longevity of your purchase. Butler even incorporates features for older kids, such as a fireman’s pole or a knotted rope climb. “The younger kids can aspire to it!” she says. Many of her playhouses include a safety gate to block off the more challenging parts of the structure. She also recommends adding a sand box for very young children, and a club house for sleepovers and secret meetings when the kids are older. But swings and slides? They pretty much maintain their allure well into adulthood.
Children actually prefer smaller spaces, Butler adds, so don’t feel pressured to go for the ultra-deluxe model. Keep things modest, and the kids will probably love it just as much. Versatility is also a must. “I always try to design something that’s intrinsic and can be used for more than one thing,” says Dallas-based architect Bob Borson. He began the blog Life of an Architect in 2010 as a creative outlet in a sluggish economy, and soon, it was the third-most-followed architecture blog on the planet. It’s proven the perfect platform to promote his work with local advocacy group Dallas CASA, which has hosted the Parade of Playhouses charity raffle for the past 17 years. Actively involved for four years and now leading his own competition, Borson helps to select winning playhouse designs from all over the world.
His own creations are high-quality, gender-neutral shells that can be filled with toys and props to spark a child’s imagination… “Swag,” he calls it. That “swag” can be cleared away easily and, when the child is older, a clean sweep can transform the space into an art studio or homework station, or even a potting shed or yoga studio for you.
The items inside make all the difference. Gomez compares the playhouse interior to a treasure chest. “One of the first things my boys said was, ‘Oooh, let me get my stuff!’ The playhouse is a place where they keep the things they value most,” she explains.
Immensely important to Borson are see-through panels and openings, not just for ventilation in hot climates like his, but for parents to keep a watchful eye on children during play. Even when doors do not accommodate a stooping adult, designers agree that this transparency is indispensable. The bonus is interactivity. Butler adds that hands-on features like hidden alcoves, secret doors and little hiding places are big hits with her customers. Gomez agrees. “My boys like doors and shutters that open and close, they crawl through windows, they climb up walls and they do things you wouldn’t expect. They just have fun.” And isn’t that what it’s all about?