In the memories of grown-ups, there is often a special place that was magical when we were kids — be it a nook, a closet or a playhouse.
When Amy Dirks was young, it was the A-frame playhouse that her dad built for her. Now the Weatherby Lake resident wants her kids to have that experience.
“I told my husband, Jared, that it was the best thing I ever had when I was a little girl,” Amy says.
So Jared, a family practitioner, built his daughters — Harper, 7, and Finley, 5 — a treehouse. And not just any treehouse. This one mimics the style of their recently remodeled modern home, with the same colors and details, down to the front deck.
The Dirks’ neighbors Daniel and Sarah Umscheid also built their kids a play structure, more like a treehouse fort. Daniel, a designer at an architectural firm, created an open-ceilinged structure on a platform using reclaimed cedar fencing. The kids — Adi, 9; Henry, 8, and Rowan, 5 — climb a wall to get up and zip down on a wire spanning a large part of the backyard.
At both homes, the families recognized how important leisure and play are for childhood — and adulthood — and created total environments that everyone can enjoy. The lake lifestyle — boating, swimming and sandcastle building — offers one layer of recreation, while their respective backyards offer another.
“It’s so fun, you can’t beat this lifestyle,” Amy says. “It makes you slow down and enjoy every day.”
A family fort
Daniel and Sarah Umscheid’s tree fort was an evolution of design.
“We originally had ideas about using this trifecta of trees and build a true elevated treehouse,” Daniel says, but setback rules and safety concerns for the trees and the children led him to rethink the plan. Instead, he poured concrete piers in the ground to secure the fort and built around the trees so they could sway unanchored.
The two-story design was a natural outcome of city restrictions on outbuildings, as well as the dimensions and number of fence posts Daniel acquired for free.
“My goal was to not spend a whole lot of money and maximize the lumber I had,” he says.
He chopped off the “dog ears” on the posts to give the wood pieces a more contemporary look and added architectural detail to the structure with bump-out windows.
“The main feature is the zip line — it’s what the kids like most,” Daniel says. Even the adults like to take a ride, as it holds up to 250 pounds. “Sometimes it’s the easiest way to get down,” Sarah says.
The tree fort is just one feature in a backyard full of opportunities. Mulched paths lead to different areas of activity and rest. Modern chairs, a hammock and tree stumps encircle a fire pit; raised berms surrounding the space make it feel protected and sacred.
A slack line affixed between two trees tests everyone’s balance.
Sarah has a small vegetable patch that gets sunlight amid the many mature walnut trees, and there’s still plenty of open yard for Henry to hit a baseball and practice hitting his Nerf target.
The evolution of the landscape continues as Daniel ponders digging a gator pit under the zip line.
“The parental figure in me hesitates,” he says.
The Umscheids have indoor projects they want to tackle, too, but after spending three years focusing their efforts on the outside, Sarah can wait for a new kitchen.
“Our list of what we want to do is long and ever-growing,” she says. “For now, we are trying to play and just enjoy life for a while.”
“Enjoy life” is exactly what Jared and Amy Dirks wanted to do in their home down the street from the Umscheids. While in the midst of a major remodel on their modern home, they tacked an outdoor living space onto the back patio. Well-meaning friends advised them to do their projects in phases, but the Dirks wanted to start living the life they wanted.
“The quality of living is better for us this way,” Amy says.
A covered back patio encompasses plenty of seating, music speakers and a TV. A gas fireplace heats the space in colder weather so the family can still comfortably curl up outside with blankets. A hot tub is steps away, and the girls’ treehouse overlooks the scene.
The treehouse is modeled after the style of the house, with the same clean lines and color palette, and doubles as a play set, with a tire swing affixed underneath, and a bright yellow slide for a fast exit. A sliding door reveals an interior world of play, with a drum set and kitchen, books and a chalkboard.
“It became the toy overflow,” Amy says. Harper’s favorite thing is the hanging swing inside; Finley likes to bang on the drums.
Jared built the treehouse over several weeks after coming home from work.
“He enjoys woodworking and figuring things out,” Amy says. She took the girls to her aunt’s house for a weekend and when they returned, he had the whole thing framed.
Amy, too, became creative with the project and Mod Podged the girls’ plentiful pieces of art on the inside walls. Crates and wine racks attached to the wall offer storage, and carpet tiles soften the floor.
The project turned out more complicated than Jared originally thought, with more materials needed and thus, more cost. Also, one particularly windy night, the Dirks discovered how much trees sway in a storm and added more anchors to secure the structure.
Being in the shade, the treehouse rarely overheats in the summer, and the Dirks put up Plexiglass over the screened windows to keep it airtight in winter, when the girls still enjoy getting away with their sleeping bags.
Adults of all ages like the treehouse, too. Grandma gets in on the slide action, and friends dare each other to jump out of the hot tub and descend the slide in the middle of winter.
Once the fleeting phase of childhood has passed, the treehouse will transition into something else.
“Jared’s probably going to turn it into a man cave,” Amy says.