By Guest Blogger Edward
A couple were looking over a playhouse I’d just built for their daughter and both used the term “sweet”. She was charmed by the Victorian aesthetics, while he had just noticed some construction detail. Even though I have been doing this awhile (20 years) both usages are still music to my ears. Neither noticed “safe”. Mostly because safety comes from what is not there; no sharp corners, no splinters, non-toxic finishes, sturdy ladders. I am proud of my designs and I keep costs down by using materials efficiently, but I am truly most concerned about safety. Since they are for children, child safety is paramount. Unfortunately, there are no state or federal safety standards for playhouses. What we have here is a compilation of many sources, plus the aforementioned 20 years covering the things they missed. A comment about these sources. Two of the more useful sources have been the United States Army Corps of Engineers play area inspection and maintenance program for base child development centers and the Canadian Esbensen Playground Safety Checklist.
Building for the present and the future – “Adorable”, “delightful”, “enchanting” and even “cute” are all terms I hear from clients when asked what they want in a playhouse. The little secret is that the play houses are built for kids, including the kid in all adults. This is not a bad thing because kids grow and their needs change, and eventually move out on their own. A properly designed playhouse can accommodate all of these needs if some time is taken early in the design process. If you think about a “detached studio” with some fantasy architecture you’ve got the idea. Think in terms of a place for an adolescent to read or a teen to study or a grandmother’s very own studio for crafts, writing or even a garden shed. While there are lots of options; think about a dream house that is too much (cost and effort) in full size, but lots of fun in miniature. Or a “vanity” playhouse, one designed to mimic the main house. Thinking about the future makes sense.
Roofs – If the roof edge is less than 7′ (seven feet) corners should be rounded. Don’t even think about metal drip edges. The corners made by metal drip edges can make an absolutely nasty cut in the scalp of a child running around the playhouse. Radius the corner and use vinyl drip edge. When notched with a series of v shaped cuts, vinyl will bend around the corner. The roof sheathing should be half inch or thicker. This is not for strength, but to prevent nails from penetrating the sheathing and protruding into the interior. Using three-quarter inch roofing nails will also help. This is especially important for playhouses with lofts. Safety tip for the roof installer. The short roofing nails will cause bashed thumbs if you try an hold them between your thumb and index finger. This might be how you hold other nails and a purple thumb might be a badge of honor, but there is a better way. Hold the nail between the index and middle fingers with the head on the pads of the fingers. Lay the back of your hand flat on the roof and drive the nail. It won’t hurt (as much) if you miss and the nail will go in straight with less chance of misses.
While we are talking about roofs, I only use full soffits. Yes it is slightly more expensive, but the playhouse looks better, it is easier to paint and reduces the places for wasps to nest.
Air flow – playhouses need adequate ventilation to prevent heat built up, even if insulated, the small space can heat quickly. Soffit and roof vents make sure that there is always some air movement. If the playhouse is later insulated they are already in place.
Windows – The windows are second only to doors in difficulties. The wrong size is visually problematic. The wrong materials can make them hard to open, reducing ventilation or dangerous in some cases. Most of my playhouses are eventually insulated, so I use commercial vinyl windows with insulated glass. They are visually clean, have screens and about the same price as making a small custom window. The smallest stock single hung windows are about 24″ wide by 30″ tall. This is a little over-sized, but unless it is a vanity playhouse where the proportions would be ruined, over-sized windows make a playhouse light and airy, literally. They let in more natural light and the larger openings let in more air. I avoid barn sash, although they are awfully cute, the glass is only single strength and there are complications to the installation. Likewise, I avoid casement windows for two reasons. First, they are hard for children to operate. Second, they open outward, right into the path of a running child.
If budget or proportions dictate building windows, the glass should be tempered safety glass or Plexiglas. Homemade (shopmade) windows should be hinged to open inward and mounted to lay flat against the wall. Screen can be stapled over the opening before the exterior trim is screwed on. A hinged window is better in this case because it is hard to build windows that open upward easily, but come down slowly. A window that drops down is a breakage and pinching hazard.
Hardware – Hardware such as window latches , drawer pulls, door knobs, etc. need to be selected carefully. Make sure that metal edges are aren’t too sharp and hinges and latches operate smoothly. A door latch that has to be slammed to close is an accident waiting to happen.
Doors – the best playhouses have two doors. The prominent one for child play on the front. A second adult access door can be built unobtrusively in the back or side. This lets you supervise and play with your children. It also permits future or winter use for storage (bikes do well to winter in a playhouse). The adult door can be constructed of the siding material or a real pre-hung exterior door. The child door should be proportioned to the playhouse. A Dutch door is often a good choice. It added ventilation when the top is opened and can be fun. The exterior latch should be attached to the lower portion and the top hooked from the inside to the bottom. This way the top can opened and latch operated if needed.
While you’re considering doors, think about an entry landing of some sort. It could be a full porch or deck. It could be as little as patio pavers or even just an area of pea gravel. It should be something to catch the mud of little shoes. It will also keep the front of playhouse from becoming a mud pit.
Foundation – Keep the playhouse close enough to the ground to discourage weeds and children crawling under it. It should be high enough to permit drainage and to keep the floor from rotting. While you’re at it geofabric (weed-stop) and gravel should extend two feet in each direction beyond the footprint of the play house. While not strictly a safety issue it keeps rain dripping off the roof from turning the perimeter in to mud channels.
Ladder and Lofts – Lofts should have safety railing. The railing can be solid or with spindles. Spindles should be spaced no more than 4″ apart to keep heads from being trapped. Ladders or stairs should be well constructed and sufficient for adults. Angled ladders are easier to climb. If using a ladder for loft access, opt for a removable one with hooks that anchor it when in place. This way, it can be stored until the children are old enough to climb safely. The loft should be equipped with some sort of handholds to ease the transition from the ladder to the loft (or more importantly the transition from the loft to the ladder). If the floor is of plywood an excellent handhold is a hand-sized oval (4″ wide by 1″) cut right in the floor and sanded smooth. Most of my loft floors are made of 1×6 pine, varnished with the edges rounded over. With proper spacing the gaps become the hand holds. Also, any dirt tends to fall to the first floor, where it is easier to sweep up. Stairs should be equipped with a hand rail and no steeper than 45?. Stairs with a landing can make use of the space by making a “cubby” under the landing. Pad any openings shorter than your child is tall with carpet scraps.
Splinter hazards – wood is one of the best materials with which to build. However wood has splinters and while they can not be avoided altogether there are some things that can be done to minimize the risks. Exposed wood should be sanded, sealed or painted. Check that nail and screw holes are filled. Screws are especially notorious for raising splinters around the head of the screw when it is driven too deeply. Power drivers make it easy to over drive screws. Run your hand over any screw just driven. If you can feel the wood forced up, knock down the splinters with some sand paper.
Interior wood can be painted or for the luxury playhouses dry wall can be installed and finished.
Materials, Paints and Finishes – Different materials have different toxicities. Some panel sheets are manufactured with urea formaldehyde glue. The smaller the wood fibers, the more glue used in manufacture. Newly manufactured panels can be stacked to let air circulate for a few days and let most of the fumes evaporate. Exposed surfaces should be painted. Hint, paint the panel BEFORE you use them and it will make the interior easy to paint. Also, it will let paint fumes escape (just TRY to keep kids out their THEIR new play house while you’re painting the inside). Use a low-odor paint if possible to finish the interior (you’ve already painted the panels, right).
Siting (playhouse placement) – Depending on your child’s age you may want to consider building in a spot that is within sight and hearing range of the main house. If there is to be some distance consider an intercom. In any case, shading from the afternoon sun will make it the most useful by keeping it from over heating. The shading can be from the shadow of the main house or a convenient tree, but in neither case close enough that one could access the roof.
While this article has not addressed how to build a playhouse, it should help guide you. Two rules of thumb, can what I am building support me and is there any way a child could get hurt building it this way. Any no’s to the first question and it is not strong enough, any yes’es to the second and I have to figure out a safe way to build it.
Remember, if it is not safe, there is no point in building it.