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How to Build a Treehouse Like a Pro (No Matter What Size Your Yard)

Whether you’ve got nothing but a super small backyard or are working with quite a bit more space, Barbara Butler has all the tips you need turn your outdoor space into the ultimate play space for kids.

belle bungalow treehouse
Photography by: Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.

It was in 1987 that Barbara Butler was asked to make her first custom play structure, and she’s been doing it ever since.


At the time, Butler had been doing some work building one-of-a-kind furniture and running a small company with a friend where they worked on decks and backyards in San Francisco. But when she was presented with the interesting request of creating a special play structure for the kids of none other than Bobby McFerrin -- yes, jazz vocalist, Grammy-winning Bobby McFerrin --  Butler, a passionate artist and sculptor, couldn’t refuse.


“I went and played on all the play structures in San Francisco,” says Butler about her approach to that first project. “I thought all about it, and came up with a design for them. I used my own truck tire for the swing, I made my own slide, and I carved the poles and made them sort of like totem poles. It was really exciting; I totally loved it!”


And just like that, Butler was sold.


“Once I did that first one, “ she says, “I said to everybody, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’”


While Butler says she couldn’t have made more than $1 an hour or so on that first project, she became completely enchanted by the project’s ability to combine all her interests –– art, play, kids, and the outdoors –– at once.


Now, Butler’s business building standard and custom play structures, forts, treehouses, and theaters has taken on a life of its own, with her creations spanning the country and her client list including such A-listers as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, Robert Redford, and Kevin Kline (not to mention, Walt Disney Productions).


Here, the queen of the (play) castle -- and play house, and play theater, and play fort -- gives her best tips for creating a special play structure for kids in any space, whether you’ve got a yard that goes on for as far as the eye can see, or one that is, well, modest.


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Photography by: Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.

If you’ve got a tiny patch of green…


Fret not. Your small yard holds more potential than meets the eye. Especially, advises Butler, if you work upwards instead of outwards.


“Kids love vertical, because they want to be up high,” says Butler, who notes that structures that focus on creating various physical levels of play are perfect for small spaces as they have tiny footprint but don’t skimp on the fun.


The perfect example from Butler’s play structure repertoire would be something like her Cape Codder playhouse.


“It’s 4x6 feet, but it’s got three levels,” she says. “I made it for this teeny backyard in San Francisco, and made it so that it went up against the house. It’s always been really popular.”


A few words of advice, though: “If they’re up high and they could fall out,” says Butler, “then you should use resilient surfacing; some rubber pads, or bark chip or something. And also, make sure kids aren’t directly looking into your neighbor’s bedroom or something! That’ll just cause problems.”


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robin hoods fort treehouse
Photography by: Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.

If you’ve got a mid-size, suburban backyard...


With a little more room to work with, you can start considering ways to add different features to your play structure.


“Swings and slides never get old,” says Butler. “Kids love them, so if you’ve got the space, always try to fit those in.”


For Butler, one of the best examples of taking advantage of a little more space to spruce up a structure is her Robin Hood Fort, which benefits from having a little more breathing room but still aims to maximize space as much as possible. In addition to having an upper level and a bottom level, the former of which kids have to climb to from the outside so as not to use up too much floor space inside the structure, the fort is packed with things like a rock wall, fire pole, a “jail” with a secret escape, and tube slide.


“It’s got a lot of play density,” says Butler, and that’s the best way to make use of a space where you’ve got a little more liberty to create and build freely.


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napa valley chalets treehouse
Photography by: Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.

If you’ve got a yard that goes on for as far as the eye can see…


With a basically boundless amount of space, you can really do anything, says Butler. So the trick becomes not figuring out what your possibilities are, but how to rein them in a bit.


“You don’t want it too far from the house,” she says when considering how to be smart about using a wide open space for a play structure. In her opinion, it’s important to keep the structure close enough to the house, especially when it’s meant for younger kids, so that parents can maintain some peace of mind and be able to keep an eye on kids when they’re out playing.


Another major consideration? Exposure.


“Kids really love things secretive and ‘magical,’” says Butler. “So you don’t want a structure that’s too exposed. That’s one of the hardest things about having a yard that’s as long as a football field!”


One way to get around the exposure problem, according to Butler, is to bring in some plants, tiles, or other kinds of landscaping. Placed around a play structure, things like bushes and dense flower beds can help section off a play area from the rest of the yard, and achieve this personal, “secret” feel that can be so enchanting to kids.


In one case -- the Castle Fort -- the kid whom Butler was building for even had the idea to incorporate a full fence right into the play structure; a fence that could subsequently act as a way to get that “hidden” feel.


“At first I was like, ‘Really?’” she says. “But then I started looking around and realized it’s kind of a castle tradition to have your castle really fortified like that.”


If you’ve got a yard that sits on a hill…


Butler says that while a person’s first instinct might be to work around a hill in their yard when building a play structure, it’s actually cool to work with the hill to create something that is especially fun and makes smart use of a tough space.


“Hillside ones are so fun because they’re so challenging.” says Butler “But it gives you a lot of opportunity. If you’re on the hill, you can work with the hill and create ways to slide down or climb up. What you have to worry about is creating relatively level landing spots for the kids if they fall, and you just have to make the structure accessible and safe to kids.”


Like in the case of Butler’s Belle Bungalow structure, going up on a hill allows you to utilize otherwise wasted space up on a hill, and to toy with the idea of creating levels of play.


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robin hoods fort treehouse
Photography by: Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.

If you’ve got a yard that’s packed with trees…


When your yard is pretty forestal, then you’ve got three cool options: treehouses, ziplines, and trampolines (err, treepolines).


So long as your trees are strong and sturdy enough, treehouses make for an incredible way to double your space, since they create a whole new level of building space above ground. As for ziplines and treepolines, taking advantage of space between trees to attach to nature and create fun additions to your space is always a huge hit.


“You just have to be a little careful, because you don’t want to hurt the trees,” says Butler, who references her Terra Verde treehouse as one of her personal favorites. “You have to cooperate with a living entity -- the tree -- and you have to allow for wind, tree growth, etc. You don’t want to upset the grace of the tree. You always want to be enhancing how beautiful the tree is.”


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