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Play it cool: Backyard structures spark kids' imaginations

Photo courtesy of Barbara Butler
This Butler creation, the “Playhouse in a Tree,” includes a rope ladder and a fireman’s pole.

Go outside and play!

This parental admonition is easier said than done, what with iPads, iPhones, computer games and the like. And, of course, there’s the frenetic lifestyle that’s commonplace in Silicon Valley.

“I’m right in the middle of it with three children ages 7 to 13,” said Jeff Richardson of Los Altos. “It’s easy to shut yourself inside.”

But that doesn’t happen often at the Richardson home, because when the kids are “sent” outside, they have a place to go where they can play and use their imaginations – a tree fort built a decade ago by Barbara Butler, a luxury playhouse designer based in San Francisco.

“Unstructured play is so healthy,” Butler said. “It’s important for kids with structured lives to have time for lollygagging and meandering – to have a wild place in the backyard where they can hang out and try on who they are.”

The wildly colorful structure in the Richardsons’ backyard is anchored on one end by a 16-foot-tall, two-story fort with a pyramid roof and playhouse below. A 9-foot-long bridge connects it to a large deck wrapped around a giant New Zealand spruce. Multiple ups and downs provide plenty of exercise.

A Dutch door with a peephole opens to the playhouse, which has a drop-leaf table beneath the window, two built-in drop seats, a corner cupboard, a chalkboard on the wall, pegs for hanging items and a secret door.

A ship’s ladder leads to the bridge and lookout post – perfect places from which to launch water balloons or shoot water guns.

Like all of Butler’s structures, it can support an adult’s weight. Richardson, who’s 6 feet, 5 inches tall, has been captain of the bridge and even escaped down the Turbo Tube Slide.

Butler recalled a post-construction visit to the Richardson home.

“When no one answered the door, I went around to the backyard,” she said. “There was Jeff, seated in the playhouse with a glass of wine while his little daughter prepared a pretend dinner.”

Fusing construction and kids

What’s the backstory of the tree fort?

Richardson was involved in fundraising for Child Advocates of Silicon Valley. Butler agreed to donate chairs and a table for one of its benefit events. When she dropped them off at the Richardson house, she looked in the backyard and said, “That tree needs a tree house.”

Of the nearly 700 play structures Butler has built, it’s among her favorites.

Butler, who “started with nothing 30 years ago,” calls herself the poster child for late bloomers.

She grew up in upstate New York, one of eight children, where playing outdoors was a daily occurrence. She earned a political science degree from the State University of New York in Cort- land, did graduate work in English literature, dabbled in art and wanted to be a writer. During summer breaks, she learned the construction trade from her contractor brothers and discovered that she really liked it.

“I went from concrete to kids,” she joked.

But there was a long road between the former and the latter.

After graduate school, she and friend Robert Forrest moved to San Francisco to become poets and painters. But to make a living, they founded Outer Space Design in 1986, building decks, hot tubs and surrounds. A year later, they undertook a yearlong backyard project in Noe Valley for singer/songwriter Bobby McFerrin and his wife, Debbie, who asked Butler to build a play structure for their two sons.

Building the playhouse was her epiphany.

“It was about outdoors, about play, about kids and construction. I thought, ‘This is it.’ All my loves fused together,” said Butler, who ultimately started her own business, Barbara Butler Artist Builder Inc.

Her first big break came in 1992 when actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates commissioned her to build a playhouse at their home in New York’s Hudson Valley. Then, in 1996, Architectural Digest featured one of her designs and the phone rang off the hook, according to Butler, who was amazed at the hundreds of calls.

Among her clients are Robert Redford, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Walt Disney Productions and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac.

Family affair

Butler has been joined in her business by husband Jeffrey Beal, sister Suzanne Butler and brother James Butler.

After finishing a Connecticut project in the dead of winter with a foot of snow on the ground, Butler decided to build structures indoors. Pre-designed modular units are built in her shop, disassembled, delivered and reassembled on-site. She employs 13 “play professionals,” including family members.

One of her Los Altos play structures, “House in a Tree,” was featured on HGTV.

“I loved that one because it was so hard to find the space in the branches. It was super challenging,” she said. “But once it was done, it looked easy.”

The 5-foot-by-5-foot playhouse is nestled in a massive oak. It features a 4-foot-by-8-foot deck, rock climbing wall, rope net ladders, firehouse pole and swing. Shutters on the playhouse windows afford views through the leafy foliage.

Butler’s philosophy: Create an outdoor playroom that’s beautiful, sparks the imagination, encourages kids to go outside and is sturdy enough for use by the whole family.

For more information, visit

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