Designing For Kids -The CastleFort Story

December 23, 2016

“It should be about this big…”

My six-year-old son’s voice trailed away as he paced off an area in our back yard about the size of a blimp hangar.

“…and about that tall…”

He pointed to the top of the tallest tree in the neighborhood, but had the Sears Tower been on Bellaire Avenue he would have chosen it instead.

“…And it should be red…”

My two-year old interrupted: “and yellow…”

“…with a windmill on top, and a rope ladder, and a slide, and a swing, and…can you build it today?”

“Well,” I said, and started to explain that before we could even start to build his new tree house, plans had to be drawn; cost estimates had to be calculated, and we hadn’t even picked out a site yet. It was a pretty big tree house so we might need a structural engineer. Could I build it myself or would I need to get competitive bids from contractors? I was just getting to the part about applying for a building permit when he broke in:

“Dad,” he said, “you can do it, you’re an arky-tek.”

(Slight pause as I choked down the lump of pride rising in my throat – how could I say no to that?)

“Okay. Hand me my credit card, son, we’re off to the lumberyard.”

Like a lot of architectural projects, this one started off with a clash of dreams and reality. As the “director” of a project, I’m often challenged to sort out the possible from the impossible and simultaneously create something beautiful, useful, and lasting. And if my client is open to alternatives and willing to explore options to control the cost, then we’ve got a realistic chance of bringing the project in near the budget.

But the budget for the “castlefort”, as my kids had now come to calling it, was only $300. And even that began to look like a distant dream when we got to the lumberyard. Yikes! For a minute, I thought the prices were in Yen.

I just needed utility-grade lumber, not the straightest, smoothest boards on earth; not perfect knot-free specimens lovingly hand-carved from trees that had lived long and happy lives and in the end, had fallen softly into thick beds of pine straw – just plain old 2 x 4’s.

Eventually, I culled out the worst looking boards from the bunch and talked the store manager into a sizeable discount. We were back on budget.

I’d known early on that the biggest problem we faced in the siting and design of our tree house was the lack of trees, or at least trees that could support a tree house. But there is always another solution lurking in the background, hidden behind the pile of baggage in my brain that keeps trying to tell me what a tree house should look like. The solution was really quite simple when I realized that it wasn’t so much that the tree house had to be up in a tree, it just mostly had to be up. And so we built it on stilts in a simplified version of coastal construction where pilings are sunk into the sand to hold up the floor deck. With my six-year old supervising, I set four 4 x 4’s into postholes and filled them with concrete.

The rest of the project had many of the elements of a “real” house; framing, siding, roofing, painting, even indoor/outdoor carpeting. I balked at my son’s request for electricity and cable TV but gave in on the chimney/skylight.

Painting was collaboration between my kids, my wife, and me; the adults handling the outside while the kids tackled the interior décor. To the relief of our neighbors, the exterior complements the house. The inside, however, looks like an oven after a particularly bad lasagna explosion. But the kids love it, and so do I.

Right from the beginning the castlefort was a huge hit with the neighbors and their kids. At every party it’s the first place the kids go and it is the center of activity for almost every game they can think up. But then a funny thing happened – the neighbor kids started asking their dads when they’d start building their castleforts. For at least one dad, the pressure was too much; his tree house is on schedule for a late spring completion.

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