How I got started in designing playhouses

How I got started in designing playhouses

It was a time when Spyrius and Ice Planet 2002 ruled the day, with a few Space Police II and Unitron groupies thrown in for good measure.  I was pretty well off with the Spyrius Robo-Guardian, Recon Robot, Spyrius Lunar Launch Site and, thanks to my uncle, the friggin Ice Station Odyssey.  Of course that was nothing to what my best friend had, the Unitron Monorail Transport Base, model 6991. With a base price of $178, 573 flashy pieces and complete with the Spyrius Droid and a reconnaissance vehicle that the train can slide into and drive away in, it was every boy's dream!

My 8 old mind ragged with jealously, clouded with unprecedented avarice and animosity.  I demanded from my parents that I have the same and was met with rolled eyes and a sigh of impatience.  Apparently, it was their opinion that it would last a week and end up in the huge pile that slowly accumulated in a basement bin for the last 4 years.  Could they not see the yearning in  my face?  The heart they were about to break?  The tears that I shed?  Nope.






He had the Deep Freeze Defender too, model 6973.  Jerk.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, you obviously weren't a boy growing up in the early 90s.  We're talking Legos my friend, Legos ruled my life.  Now it's bills, but then, Legos.

It was at a very young age when I learned my love to build things with my hands. Whether it was Legos, Lincoln logs, Knexs or piles of dirt in my backyard with some used Tonka trucks, I had to build something. I was also a perfectionist.  All my construction toys had to have perfect symmetry and order, completely contrasted to my friend who loved to  pile on tons of extra pieces to whatever model he had laying around and then mercilessly crash them into the dresser.

Growing up, I wasn't really sure I knew what my dad did for work, but once I got to middle school, I knew that it wasn't what I wanted.  He studied to be an electrical engineer at Purdue, but the job market lead him into coding.  Nearly daily, he would come home and complain about the blatant inefficiencies of the poorly written C++ he had to put up with, unloading a mass of computer jargon upon my mother, who never understood a word he said and after a few minutes of patient listening asked if he got the mail.

I'm aware there's an argument that computer code is an art and certainly a field that requires quite a bit of design, but it's not a composition that a normal 8 year old would have in mind if they were handed a pencil and paper and asked to form an idea.  I enjoy working in the physical, he worked in the abstract.

I went to a prep school who's business was to get us all into some kind of college or university.  Expressing my idea to go to a carpentry trade school was understandably not much of a hit for my career counselor, especially since the school had a 97% college entry record.  Still I got into a 2 year program, one year being rough carpentry, such as framing walls, and the 2nd year in finish carpentry, such as drywall, stairs and cabinetry.  For a little while I had the ambition to build my own house, inspired by a 3500 square foot beauty I used to regularly drive by.  That went away after I realized that the time spent building the house is time without a paycheck.

It wasn't until the company I worked for two years went under that I found a truly fulfilling line of work that I'm still a part of today.  There was one single craigslist ad, seeking a slightly experienced carpenter for a tree house construction company.  I was intrigued.  I used to climb trees when I was younger, especially a red cedar in my parents front yard that was weighted with low branches and had a great view of passing car's sunroofs; sometimes they were holding coffee!  That was the first sentence I wrote for the cover letter along with my resume.  It turned out that there were 80 applicants seeking this job, but I was chosen first because of that sentence.

I now have over 5 years of tree house experience, and it's been a blast.  In many ways, you're able to live vicariously through the excited kids who get to have something really cool you never got to own.  There is so much creativity and imagination in building tree houses.  No two trees are alike; every one of them is different, every yard as well.  I'm sure that if you take a look at my company's website, you'll see just how customizable and unique every one of them can be.  Building tree houses truly is a great outlet for creativity and design.

It wasn't just tree house ideology I've learned either, but in our slower seasons, I learned HTML, SEO and Sketchup and designed a few websites and tree house concepts.  It was soon after then that I realized that CAD was a great way to convey real life woodworking projects to people, something that I was about 35 years late to the game for.  But I figured better late than never.

So, why not start a on-line designation where I can share the opportunity to build their own projects?

All the playhouses that you see on my website were thought of by me from the point of both a carpenter and a younger me who wanted to build something cool while still being very practical.  I literally have spent at least a few thousand hours thinking about ideas, designing, writing the sometimes 60+ page plans and coding the website.  Even if I only sell one plan a month, it was worth it.

I hope there's people out there that can relate and find something they like while browsing the pages.  Build something awesome!

Now only if I could design a Ice Planet playhouse....

- Paul Gifford




June 18, 2015
9 Tips for Designing a Cool Kid's Playhouse

9 Tips for Designing a Cool Kid's Playhouse

You've recently been thinking about buying or building your kid some kind of outdoor playset that'll get them out of the house and out of your hair for a bit. You want it to be engaging so your child will look forward to being out in the sun, exercising and away from the play station, but you also want it designed to look nice in your yard, and not be an eye sore the Joneses will be secretly talking about.

There are many lame and mediocre play forts out there.  What is it that makes a child's playhouse a “good” one? Yes, being kind to your wallet may be an important deciding factor in what the little guy will get, but you don't have to spend a lot of money to get something that'll really engage the child while still making the parent's bank account happy. Listed below are some key places you can focus in on to make your playhouse the best it can be... or at least better than the Joneses.  Below are nine tips to get your project to the top!

1. Colors

Colors are hugely sensory by nature. In fact, the human eye is able to pick up about 10,000,000 different shades and hues of them. Bright and vibrant colors encourage activity and are also very important in the animal kingdom from scaring off predators to attracting mates. Your kids are probably too young to be attracting mates with their ornate playhouse, but it'll make their play fort more glamorous and special.

Picking out a good color scheme involves pretty much the same technique as choosing colors for a normal house. All colors have an opposite color that complement each other nicely, and you shouldn't be afraid to try out shades that you wouldn't normally consider. For instance, because red and green are color opposites, they look amazing together. Combine them with a lighter contrasting color for the trim and you'll have yourself a sharp looking playhouse your kids and you will be proud to have.  The same applies for orange and blue, violet and lime and polka dots and plaid.  Ok, maybe not the later. For more color science and tips, check out

Don't forget to ask what your kids will like to see too! ;-)

2. Accessories

This is an obvious one.  Kid's crave stuff to play with, both big and small.  A pirate ship without a ship wheel, jolly roger flag and treasure map just seems so... bare.  Avoid banality and spice things up that'll wet your child's appetite and get them going outside.  It doesn't have to be much, although it could be.

The most obvious accessories to a playhouse are the slides and the swings.  Although slides have to be attached to the playhouse, swings, especially single rope swings can be hung anywhere.  From my experience of installing zip-lines and rope swings, kids love, love, love spider swings.  Basically a cross form of a hammock and a tire swing, kids go nuts to play on these things.  The best part is that you just need a decent branch to hang one rope and you're golden.

Play furniture also make great playhouse accessories, especially if you're building a miniature Victorian dwelling.  An accessory list is provided on this website through our amazon store.   Check it out!
Below is a video I made of myself giving instructions for hanging a single rope swing.  When they're tied high up in the air, they can be a total blast!


3. Sharp Design

When I mention design, I'm really talking about the playhouse's layout, quality, details and size.  All four together provide a design that is both appealing for youngsters and durable to make your outdoor investment worth it.

While kid's may accept the simple 8x8 playhouse, they long for the whimsical, the unique and the larger than life designs.  Luckily we offer these types of cool backyard projects, and make it as easy as possible to make them become a reality.

4. Layout

As I mentioned before, very often parents purchase a playhouse to give their children a reason to go outside and play.  Kid's also very often have extremely short attention spans, which is why TV and video games are so exciting, with their bright colors, simple story lines and quick editing.  Because we have to compete with so much stimulating electronic media, it's hard to make the outdoors anything more than mundane.  

Kid's need places to explore, decisions to make and an array of things to do.  The older the child, the more this becomes important.  Your child's clubhouse should have more than just a front door and a window to stare out of.  

Maybe it involves a 2nd floor, a fire pole and slide to go down or a tunnel to crawl through.   Kids need variety in the activities they involve themselves in with their playhouse to keep boredom from creeping in.  Having something that represents a real life grown up object makes for ample imagination fuel too!

5. Quality

How long do you plan on keeping your playhouse?  Is it designed to be out in the elements?   If you are  buying a playhouse kit or hiring a professional, you can be rest assured that it'll last a while, most likely  as long as your kids stay kids.

If you're planing on taking up the DIY mantle and building your own kid's playhouse, there are a few things you should keep in mind.  Be sure the plans have been designed by a pro who calls for the proper lumber sizes and satisfies basic safety requirements.

If the blue prints call for a shingle roof, the packaging has instructions for the proper shingle layout to keep water from seeping in.  If there isn't a traditional roof, make sure to frame the playhouse with pressure treated lumber so that I'll last more than 2 years in the elements.  Also be sure to paint or stain your playhouse with an oil based coating for it to last even longer.

6. Details

It's the little things in life that matter, and it's the small (and big) details of your playhouse that can make it go a long way.  If you're building a castle themed playhouse, you want it to have battlements, towers and a painted block veneer.  Or if you're building a monster truck, it should have huge tires, seats, mirrors and a driver's wheel.  Even decorative trim, flower boxes and play furniture fall into this category.  What we're really seeking with fun details is a character set that is both fun and alluring; both to kids and adults.

7. Size

Is your child too big for the size playhouse you can afford?  Don't bother.  Instead invest in a zip line, hammock or something else appropriate for their age.  The bigger the child, the more complex and sizable the playhouse should be.   Consider also the size of your yard.  If there is no room for something bigger than a 6'x6' play fort, it may be wise to spend your money on something else that'll be more engaging.  Look into our list of 10 things to consider before building your playhouse for more information!

If you child has a few siblings or a number of friends, a larger playhouse may be appropriate too.  Play structures can be very social gathering spots when it comes to playtime.  Just like the local pub, laundry mat or grocery store are common social places for adults, backyards, swings and clubhouses are the same to the kiddies.  Minus the drinks.

8. Target your child's interest

Is your son or daughter passionate about something, perhaps to the point of obsession?  At the risk of further perpetuating this unhealthy infatuation, there are many options available for building something that caters to their undying vehemence for fire trucks or Victorian mansions.

The play structure plans at Paul's Playhouses come in a large variety of styles, themes and designs.  From simple to complex, miniature building types to vehicles and ships, there is something for everyone.  Check out our full playhouse catalog.  If there is something you don't see, send me a message and you might just see it hosted here in a short while!

9. Shade

A treehouse with a bridge long a hill
This one doesn't also come to mind first, but while scanning forums about good playground design, being built in shade kept reappearing on everyone's list.  No one imagines a good time outdoors climbing over hot surfaces, afraid to touch anything while also risking a lovely sunburn to boot.  Building your playhouse in the shade is another way to keep your kids engaged with their new play fort.  

If there are no shady areas in your yard, a roofed playhouse with a 2nd floor or a high pitched roof is a good way to trap heat up high and provide a cooler area for your child to play in. Maybe plant a tree too while you're at it.  :-)
If you're still not sure what you want to build, try looking into our handpicked list of of our favorite boys and girls playhouse designs!
June 14, 2015