Real Estate

When work is play

Architects create playhouses that can be castles or Birge Clark knockoffs

The little kid lurking in local architects' psyches became visible early this month, when 15 of their kid-sized playhouses went on display at Stanford Shopping Center. You can see them through June 11.

The imaginative structures will be auctioned off June 4 at a gala "Dreams Happen" benefit for Rebuilding Together Peninsula, a nonprofit that rehabilitates homes and community facilities for low-income individuals. Since 1989, the group has worked on more than 1,000 homes in northern Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, as well as nearly 300 community facilities, with the help of close to 80,000 volunteers.

This year's playhouses include a science lab, a pirate ship, a firehouse, a colorful "Oblique House" and a variety of more traditional home designs, from Tudor to a Cotswold Cottage. Some incorporate slides, ladders, climbing walls or ropes, ramps or even a rooftop terrace.

One playhouse located in front of Bloomingdale's, called the (f), was envisioned by Ana Williamson, Libby Raab and Eric Asato of the firm Ana Williamson Architect in Menlo Park.

Planning and design began six months ago. The playhouse was constructed by Mediterraneo Design Build of Menlo Park, with materials and skills donated -- from lumber and roofing to engineering.

Their thinking began with a basic question, Raab said: "What do kids love?"

Many of the past playhouses were "miniature versions of a house. Some are gender specific. We wanted to appeal to girls and boys, young and old," she added.

And when the kids grow up, the playhouse can evolve into a "shoffice," what Williamson defined as a shed/office/writing studio.

"This was so fun ... no clients, no codes," Williamson said, although there were certainly limitations: The house had to be built on a 10-foot by 8-foot platform, could weigh no more than 6,000 pounds, and could be no taller than 11 feet, 6 inches -- that way it could be lifted and transported by truck.

And, although there's no specific code for playhouses, the architects ran the drawings past a structural engineer, tweaking the specs as necessary.

One can enter the (f) either through a red tunnel and pop up through a trap door, or up a ramp through a barn door, or through a Dutch door at ground level. A ladder leads to a roof hatch, taking you to a terrace with artificial turf.

Shelves along one side can hold anything that makes the playhouse into something else.

"Let kids decide what this is," Troy Turvy, a partner at Mediterraneo Design Build, said. "It leaves a fair bit to the imagination. Is it a clubhouse? A fort? A dungeon?"

Williamson kid-tested the (f) on her own teenagers, who asked why they couldn't have one in their back yard.

"Every little kid wants to be up there," she said, who observed children standing behind the roped-off barrier at Stanford Shopping Center, looking longingly at the red tunnel entrance.

Williamson estimates that their playhouse took more than 100 hours to design, a month to construct and would have cost close to $40,000, if everything from ideas to materials hadn't been donated. Even working space down the street from Mediterraneo's office was donated.

Most of the playhouses will sell at auction for anywhere from $6,000 to $70,000, with $15,000 to $20,000 the average, according to Gary Ahern, who had such a "wonderful time" designing a playhouse in 1999 that he agreed to chair the event two years later.

And he's continued every two years since.

"I'm just a big kid, and I wanted to design a playhouse," he said, adding that he became more impassioned by the mission of the organization and now serves on the board of Rebuilding Together Peninsula.

The Dreams Happen fundraiser has raised $2.8 million since 1993. And Ahern is proud to say his design drew the high $70,000 bid a few years ago.

It's not so easy to predict which playhouses will get the most auction action. Two years ago, Ahern said, the ones he thought would be highlights were surpassed by others he didn't think would be as popular.

"It's whatever the temperature of the room is that night. Everyone comes in looking for something different. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said.

This year Ahern designed Casita del Sol, complete with tile roof, arched window, "wrought iron" balcony and a bright yellow slide.

He usually waits until late in the game to design his offering. As event chair, he sees himself as a bit of a challenge, not wanting to turn down someone who's come up with something too similar. "I usually design on the fly. It's kind of fun, coming up with something at the last minute," he added.

"It amazes me how creatively and differently people look at a design problem," he said. "This is the best assortment we've ever had."

The gala fundraiser begins with cocktails and dinner outside, then "a very fun live auction," followed by dessert and dancing. "It's one of the most enjoyable fundraisers," he said.

Williamson echoed his sentiments, adding "Architecture can be fun. It doesn't have to be serious."

What: Dreams Happen, a benefit for Rebuilding Together Peninsula

When: Saturday, June 4, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Stanford Shopping Center

Cost: $110 for tickets

Info: 650-366-6597 or or at the Guest Services Desk, located inside the Stanford Shopping Center courtyard next to Polo-Ralph Lauren

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