If You Build It… Daring dads and their DIY play structures

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent
Clarke Cummings plays with his kids, CX, 5, and Soleil, 8, on their pirate ship in their Worthington backyard.

While a field of fescue is nice, backyard play structures can go a long way in staving off kids' summertime claims of boredom. Instead of settling for a pre-fab swing set or playhouse-in-a-box, these two homeowners went the DIY route with fantastic results.

Clarke Cummings already had some DIY skills, but learning to build an entire house alongside his father-in-law through Habitat for Humanity prepared him for almost any project. Together they rebuilt a deck and even put a roof on Cummings' first house.

When Cummings and his wife Amy decided it was time to put a play structure in the backyard of their Worthington home last spring, they knew they wanted something that would provide fun for their kids, ages 4 and 7 at the time, for years to come.

"There are a lot of different options out there," Cummings said. "It can be challenging to figure out what's going to work."

Cummings found what he wanted when he came across pirateshipplayhouseplans.com, which, for around $150, provided blueprints and a materials list for an 8--by-18-foot wooden pirate ship. He estimates he spent $1,250 for wood and $150 for screws, nails and other materials.

Cummings customized the plans to his liking, cutting in some angles here and there, not to mention adding a catapult. A few years ago his son, Clarke Xander (aka "CX"), had an Angry Birds-themed birthday party for which Cummings had built a 2-by-4-foot wooden catapult for the kids to use. Naturally, he incorporated a spot on the deck for the catapult.

The ship boasts bottom, middle and top decks, complete with a firehouse-style pole to go quickly from one deck to another. Now that his two swashbucklers are getting bigger and older - CX is now 5 and daughter Soleil is 8 - Cummings plans to further customize the ship this year, adding a crow's nest and some climbing holes.

For any time-consuming home project, Cummings stressed the importance of owning or renting the right tools, especially a framing nailer, for building a play structure of this size. He also chose the ideal time to tackle the project: the week before he started a new job, which meant he didn't have to take vacation time or spend every weekend covered in sawdust. He estimated it took about 60 hours to build. "If I'd tried to do it over weekends, it probably would have taken me three months," he said.

The Cummings' backyard has exponentially grown in popularity since last year.

"Some neighborhood kids play on the pirate ship more than my kids," Cummings said, laughing.

Rick Snowdon is no carpenter. "'Handy' would be the most generous description," he said.

But Snowdon makes up for any skill deficits with a curious nature and a willingness to march into uncharted territory. "I like to figure out if I can do it," he said.

Staring at two pine trees in the backyard of his Bexley home, Snowdon wondered if he could build a treehouse for his kids. Imagining the structure as merely an elevated shed, he looked online for some plans on how to frame a shed, then sketched a basic plan for the treehouse on a napkin.

"We're not the kit type of family," he said.

Snowdon started the project in fall 2012 and thought it would take him about a month to complete, but, as is the case with many DIY projects, it dragged on. His three kids - Phoebe, 10, Theo, 13, and Hank, 15 - began to doubt him. At one point, Snowdon heard Hank tell Theo, "Dad's never gonna finish this."

"That was like a dare to make sure I did," Snowdon said.

Sure enough, by last summer the project was finished, complete with cedar siding, a Dutch door and corrugated metal roof, all resting 11 feet off the ground on four posts, a pair of which is attached to the two trees. Snowdon even found a local fabricator to custom-bend a pipe to use as a firefighters' pole on the side of the house. He estimated the total cost of the treehouse was more than $2,000.

It's a popular attraction with his kids and their friends, but adults like it, too. Snowdon said he recently put a horseshoe pit below the treehouse, which now functions as an observation deck during games.

Snowdon would do a few things differently if he had to do it again. Most importantly, he would have taken the time to make sure all the support posts were square. The "measure twice, cut once" adage rang true. But he had no regrets about taking on the project.

"I realized my kids are growing up," Snowdon said. "I wanted to do something fun like this to capture their attention while they're still children."

Under Ohio's residential code, "swings and other playground equipment" are exempt from plan approval and permit requirements. Codes change every year but, for now, there are no statewide regulations on structures that fall under the wide umbrella of "playground equipment." Columbus and most area suburbs follow the state's lead and leave play structures to the discretion of homeowners (within reason).

Still, it's always a good idea to call your local building department before building since guidelines vary from suburb to suburb. Bexley asks that residents adhere to the 3-foot setback requirement from property lines.

Many homeowners' associations also have either language in their guidelines that directly addresses play structures or an approval process to be followed before construction.

Know, too, that certain structures could become home-insurance headaches.

"The only comment I'd make is, don't do something over your head," said Columbus chief building official Keith Wagenknecht. "Use good judgment for your own kids."

Rick Snowdon encountered some complaints while building his Bexley treehouse and amended his plans to remove windows that faced an adjacent lot and also lowered the roof height. Clarke Cummings also admitted to some drive-by dirty looks from Worthington residents while constructing his pirate ship, but for the most part neighborhood response was positive.

Let neighborliness be your guide when planning. Give neighbors something they can point to and be proud of. Make structures safe not only for your own children, but for curious kids who live nearby. Respect neighbors' privacy, and come up with a maintenance plan to prevent the structure from becoming an eyesore if and when the kids outgrow it.