The Stuff of Outdoor Dreams
Fort Santa Barbara
"Don't expand your house, build a tree house," said Barbara Butler. "It's good for your kids' imagination. It gets them outdoors and playing."
Butler is the owner and president of Barbara Butler Artist-Builder, Inc. Her company creates tree houses, play forts, playhouses, backyard theaters, outdoor furniture and a whole lot more - all designed with children in mind. There are customs, pre-designed structures, kits and do-it-yourself plans available, and the possibilities (as well as the prices) boggle the imagination. Touring the website www.barbarabutler.com is like taking a trip into childhood fantasyland, and there are "playhouses" there that look like they would (and probably do) require a mortgage.
As you can see from the accompanying photos, these are not your granddad's structures. They are artistically designed, yet super functional for play. They often incorporate bridges, towers, slides, swings and more.
Butler said she grew up (as many of us did) playing outdoors, where using one's imagination and enjoying physical activity in the fresh air was an everyday thing.
"Kids have gotten away from that these days," she said.
And her goal is to get them back out there. While building the structures that will inspire them is her primary focus, enabling parents to build their own is also a joy. "I love the idea of being the inspiration for people to go to the website and then do it themselves," she said.
So, how did she come to this?
"I got into it in a roundabout way," Butler said. She was working as a contractor to pay bills while she expressed her artistic nature in oil painting. The contracting work was mostly decks, hot tubs and the like. In 1987, one of her customers asked if she could build an unusual play structure. She did the job, but when it was finished, she figured out she'd done it at a pay rate of only $2 per hour. But even so it inspired her. "I realized this was it," Butler said. "It combined everything I loved - art, wood, sculpture, the outdoors, kids and play."
That was the beginning, and now Butler and her merry group of play professionals"\ make dreams come true for children of all ages.
But these dreams don't come cheap. While you can purchase plans for building your own play structures, starting at $295, things go up fast after that. Two kits are offered, for two different sized play houses, at $2,450 and $4,950. A one-story predesigned play house starts at $4,000 and a two-story at $9,000. Custom structures start at about $15,000 and can go up to $200,000, with the typical price in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. Butler explained the differences.
"Pre-designed means we have built that model over and over. It's an economy of scale, and sometimes the parts are already built. A kit is between plans and pre-designed. All the wood is cut and full instructions with photos show how to build it. It comes with everything, including the hardware."
She said the kits aren't really big sellers.
"People are more interested in doing it from plans or buying pre-designed," she said.
Butler's structures are well-crafted and sturdy. "All the lumber is redwood from well-managed forests," she said. The redwood is very durable in the outdoors, strong, easy to work with, resistant to termite damage and "it smells good." Plastic is used for slides and there are metal parts, but most of each structure is natural redwood.
"Maintenance is simple," Butler said. "People have us back 10 years later. Re-staining brings back the original glory."
Butler's company and its customers are like an extended family and stay in touch. "We even help people sell them (the play structures) when their kids grow up," she said. These resales get posted on the website.
Kids lives are so scheduled, so structured these days, Butler emphasized. They spend so much time indoors. We need to create interesting outdoor play spaces to get them outdoors and spark their imaginations.
For more information, visit www.barbarabutler.com.