August 21, 2017

Barbara Butler's Unique Treeforts and Play Houses

Since 1987, Barbara Butler has been creating unique playgrounds for children, including pre-designed and custom-designed play houses for your gardens, trees, and more.

by New York Spaces

Sycamore Treefort by Barbara Butler
Sycamore Treefort by Barbara Butler.
Sycamore Treefort by Barbara Butler
Barbara Butler.

NYS: When did you start designing playhouses?

Barbara Butler: It was October 1987 in San Francisco. I was building decks and backyards with a friend in San Francisco by day, and working as an artist and poet by night. I had learned construction a few earlier from my brothers who renovated brownstones in Washington D.C. I loved working with my hands, working outdoors, and it seemed like a clever way to pay the bills and keep being an artist. Bobby McFerrin's wife Debbie hired us to do her backyard—a steep yard in San Francisco—and her first request was an unusual play structure for their young boys. I did my research by playing on all the playgrounds in San Francisco and came up with a custom design for the McFerrin's that featured carved and stained poles and a custom slide. As I was building it, I realized, "This is it! This is what I want to do!" Creating artistic paly structures combined everything I loved: kids, art, outdoors, play, trees. That was 30 years ago and I still love designing and building play spaces for kids.

NYS: What separates your designs from other playhouses?

Barbara Butler: Craftsmanship, quality of materials, and a holistic approach to design are what distinguish my play structures and treehouses from other companies. We build outdoor rooms to mirror the quality and craftsmanship of the family home and we use the best materials. I like building so the family can play on the structures together! And when designing a play environment, I take the site and the trees into consideration so that the play structure becomes a part of the landscape. And I think a lot about "lops of play"—how the kids will run around and make use of the entire space.

Treehouse by Barbara butler
Cape Codder by Barbara Butler.

NYS: Tell us the inspiration behind some of your favorite designs!

Barbara Butler: My own childhood is my main inspiration—I am number six out of eight kids and I grew up on a block with about 40 kids in the small city of Watertown, NY. Everyday my mom said, "Go outside and play" and the main rule was "be home by dark". Times are different now, but I want to recreate that wild fun spirit of play for kids today in the safe circle of the backyard.

NYS: What kind of budgets do you work with?

Barbara Butler: I work with all kinds of budgets. We offer pre-designed and custom options. Our pre-designed playhouses start at $4,000, our two-story pre-design forts start at $9000. Custom projects start around $20,000. -

NYS: Do you do custom designs?

Barbara Butler: Custom designs are my favorite! Especially if there's a tree involved too! I love making a treehouse-play structure combination. And I enjoy working on hillsides or odd spaces—the challenge is exciting!

NYS: How do you foresee your designs influencing family activities?

Napa Valley Chalets by Barbara Butler
Napa Valley Chalets by Barbara Butler. Photo: Teena Albert.

Barbara Butler: Building a treehouse or play structure in your backyard will get the kids outside and away from their screens. It also becomes a great gathering spot for playdates. I like to get both kids and parents outside playing together, so everything is built robust enough for adults to climb too. My play structures are not just a piece of playground equipment, but a work of art that will inspire older members of the family—older kids, aunts, uncles, grandparents—to explore the treehouse or play structure together and to interact with each other in innovative ways, which could be playing make-believe, playing games, reading, storytelling, pumpkin carving... It's a whole new type of family room.

NYS: Tell us about the construction. What kind of materials do you employ?

Barbara Butler: We have been committed to working with GREEN materials since the beginning. We use all redwood sourced from well-managed forests. It's strong, durable (stands up to rot and weather) and is beautiful—the perfect choice for kids to be touching. We make our own in-house Tung Oil stains, which protects the redwood. It is all natural and comes in 59 unique shades.

Belle Bungalow by Barbara Butler
Belle Bungalow by Barbara Butler.

NYS: What are you working on now?

Barbara Butler: I do both public and private projects. We recently finished a Barge and Container Box play structure for a historic rest stop on the NYS Thruway, celebrating the Erie Canal. It's in the Mohawk Valley at the historic Lock 13 on the Erie Canal. If you are driving west on I-90, stop and check it out!

I'm also working on a public project called the Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City, CA—it's a fully accessible park designs for kids and adults of all abilities, where everyone can play regardless of their abilities.
This will be my second Magical Bridge Playground—the first one opened in Palo Alto in 2015 and is a tremendous success! I am building another 2-Story Playhouse, ramps, bridges and a Treehouse.
And we are building a big custom treehouse for a family in Portland Oregon and we'll be heading up there to install it in September. And we have a fun modern play structure going to LA soon.

NYS: Where can we find your designs?

Barbara Butler: We have a great website with lots of photos and information and our blog shows what we are building currently, as does our Facebook page

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