Grasshopper Playhouse

When you think of a playhouse that children would love to play in, don’t you automatically think of grasshoppers? I know I do …

Grasshopper Playhouse exploded view

Playhouse entries for the 2017 Life of an Architect Playhouse Design Competition are starting to roll in so I figured I had better get my design up on site so that all the other grasshopper themed playhouses don’t think I stole their idea. Do you know what a grasshopper house is? Well, you should google it if you really want to know but the short version is that it is a small house, typically made out of tiny pieces of bamboo, that people put their pet grasshoppers. This is primarily a Chinese custom but not so much that I didn’t know what they were when I started my design process.

I have now designed so many playhouses that I am coming up with my own rules – just to keep things interesting and challenging. There are a few standards rules that I follow in the design process in every one of my playhouse designs, but there are some additional restrictions I have placed on myself.

  • The number one rule I have is that these playhouses can not be completely enclosed. It gets quite hot here in Dallas and I want natural circulation and airflow moving through this playhouse. Dehydration and Heatstroke are not as much fun as they sound.
  • I also have the “Proof of Life” requirement. If I let any children go outside to the playhouse, I want to be able to glance out the window and see if they are still there and not getting into trouble. I’m all for creating a sense of enclosure, but total privacy is not in the cards you little hooligans!
  • Since the interests of children can be fickle, all of my playhouses are required to have a lifespan beyond the first year of ownership. That’s why I don’t design playhouses that look like giant cupcakes … those are fun for a month but who wants a giant cupcake in their backyard for the next 5 years? Again, not as much fun as it might sound.
  • They must be cost-effective to build. The same contractor (Buford Hawthorne Builders) has agreed to build my playhouse every year and I feel a sense of duty to not stick him with a $25,000 chalet themed playhouse. This restriction has actually been one of the more interesting challenges I’ve imposed upon myself because it really challenges your creativity. I think it would be incredibly easy to design a $25,000 Chalet themed playhouse. Now try to and do it for $1,200 … Uh huh, that’s what I thought.
  • Most of the playhouses that I have evaluated over the years have scale problems. Either the space is too small for a physically capable child to use – or – the proportion of the playhouse is off because rather than scaling the entire structure based on an 8′-0″ high point, people stick full-size building components into a slightly smaller than normal structure … and it looks weird.
  • Since I make the playhouses I design available to free to anyone who wants to build them, I try to make the construction commensurate with the skills of a reasonably adventurous weekend DIY’er. Now I should warn any of you who are thinking you’re that person, my playhouses are simple, but what makes them work is the level of craft that a skilled contractor brings to the mix. “Easy” can look like “stinky” if the work is sloppy.

So there you go – let’s take a stroll through”The Grasshopper House”

Grasshopper Playhouse Framing

Oooooh – look at that framing. It’s all 2×4’s but please make a note of the horizontal 2x’s on the walls. They’ve been rotated 90° and pushed out flush to the outside of the vertical framing members. You’ll see why this is important in a few steps when I get around to showing you the screening.

Grasshopper Playhouse Roof Panels

I always think a playhouse is cooler if you can actually go out there when it’s raining and not get drenched. This is achieved in ‘The Grasshopper Playhouse’ because the roof is covered in plastic corrugated panels. Normally you would not see the horizontal 1x’s running perpendicular to the roof framing sandwiching the corrugate. This was something that I added because of how I am wrapping the playhouse.

You’ll see what I mean in just a minute.

Grasshopper Playhouse Door Frame

Playhouses need a door, and that door needs to be scaled to the height of a child – I believe that this allows the child using the playhouse to claim dominion over the space. It’s not sized for an adult because it’s not meant for an adult! In this case, I will have two hinged square steel tube frames that will be able to swing 180° to completely open one side of the playhouse. The middle section frames out a window and provides a place where the door can be grabbed for operation.

Grasshopper Playhouse Slats

The exterior cladding is a series of 1×1 wood members that are staggered in their overall height. This means that the overlapping center section has twice the density of either the upper or lower sections. This increased density will help create the sense of privacy and enclosure, while still allowing for sufficient airflow and “proof of life.” The height was determined by the standing height of an average 5 year-old and the seated height of just about anyone but the tallest among us. (i.e. the height above the deck of this increased density is set at 48″)

Grasshopper Playhouse Open Doors

Here is a look at ‘The Grasshopper Playhouse’ with the doors completely open.

Grasshopper playhouse - transparency elevations

I also did some transparency studies to determine what was sufficient spacing to balance privacy and enclosure with openness and airflow. Both series of elevations show the “open” and “closed” positions. Once this playhouse has been built, you’ll never experience it in the manner I’ve shown in the images directly above. In fact, I think this playhouse is going to be one of those that feels dramatically different in real life than how it is represented here.

… and I think that’s a positive thing.

Since playhouse designs are already rolling in, I am already beginning to see some wacky scale issues with some of the entries. Please indulge me as I once again reiterate that you need to get the scale figures in your design sized correctly!! I know how big kids are and if you try to fake your way through to the finals, it’s not going to work. If I see another “hidey-hole” type entry that is size so only a baby born 3 months premature could fit through, I am going to flag your entry.

How tall are babies - architectural scale figures

That is me standing on the roof of one of my projects a few years ago … the pained look on my face is there because I instinctively knew that this photo would one day be used to teach people a thing or two about scale figures … and I’m standing next to an 18-month-old baby.

Perfectly normal.

Did you know that the average height of an 18-month-old male baby is 32″ tall? Based on the size of the children scale figures used in some of the entries I received, I am going to say that no, you didn’t know that the average height of an 18″ month old male baby is 32″. Human beings have been getting bigger and bigger so If you visit this site from the future, I’m sure the next bit of facts won’t still be true but as of 2017, they are pretty good.

Age Boys Girls
Birth 19.1″ to 20.1″ 18’9″ to 19.8″
1 Years Old 30.5″ to 31.8″ 29.9″ to 31.2″
2 years Old 33.0″ to 35.4″ 33.2″ to 34.9″
3 Years Old 36.5″ to 38.6″ 36.0″ to 28.1″
4 Years Old 39.2″ to 41.5″ 38.6″ to 41″
5 Years Old 41.7″ to 46.9″ 41.34″ to 46.7″

These are simply the average sizes of children from birth through the first 5 years of life – so if you were 4 feet tall at birth, you are not the average (if you were 4 feet tall at birth I’m not sure what you are). I also chose this age span because this appeared to be the relative age of the children used as scale figures.

So there you have it – hope you like ‘The Grasshopper House!’ Only 11 more days until this year’s 2017 Life of an Architect Playhouse Design Competition entries are due. That’s more than enough time to design and prepare an entry submission. I’ve already made your design trophy, all you need to do is enter a playhouse, make it to the finalists round, and it’s yours!


Bob signature FAIA


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