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Issue:

I have three kids that are 3 (female), 10 (male), and 13 (male). My desire is to get them outside and playing in the fresh air - as all kids should. They all enjoy creative play, but my 10 year old and 3 year old also like to "act" out stories. The boys also love to have a "fort" that they can hide in and often play games like capture the flag. I want them to have an outdoor structure that they can ALL play in while meeting their different styles of creativity and age appropriate play.

Considerations:

  • I have a big backyard, but I also have a Home Owners Association (HOA) that doesn't like people building "permanent" things in said big back yard. When buying the home with the most visible corner lot in the neighborhood, I didn't realize the scrutiny to which I would be subjected.
  • I do have some basic handyman skills and am willing to build a structure that may be a little more challenging than something "out of the box"
  • Whatever I pick, I need to make sure that it will last for a long time and easy to maintain. It should also be able to stand up to the elements. I'm the type of dad that just might forget to bring it the garage prior to major weather events. Being a parent to three children has also made me LAZY!
  • Having three children and a beautiful back yard has also turned me into a fiscal conservative that doesn't like to spend money. Go figure!
  • My children also range in size from 3' to almost my height 5' 7" (yes, a 13 year old is that tall) - having a structure that fits those kids is paramount.


Goals:

Find a play structure that is:

  1. encouraging creativity in my children
  2. big enough for one child and one adult
  3. easily constructed and deconstructed without tools
  4. storage friendly and won't take up too much space when not in use
  5. sturdy and able to withstand the elements (Note: Children are considered "forces of nature"; therefore, elements)
  6. relatively inexpensive – about $100 (Note:I didn’t say CHEAP; CHEAP = CRAPPY)


When rating my options, the top two are of the most important to me. Any selection must meet BOTH of those essential criteria.

Step 1: Research

When making a HUGE decision such as the procurement of a family PLAY Home (sarcasm intended), I typically consider the options of BUILD vs. BUY. As I mentioned in my considerations, I am HANDY. I also noted that I can be LAZY. So I decided to do some research to see if there is something I could BUY that would meet all of my goals without having to tap into my MAKER MODE.

Option 1:

The first thing I wanted to look at was the "Little Tikes" play sets. I seem to recall my pre-school had one of those, and it was cool when I was a kid. But does it meet my goals?

  • Cute? Sure. Creative? Not really. (FAIL)
  • Not that big. I would never be able to fit in the door (or get out if I did). (FAIL)
  • Fairly easy to construct, no tools needed. (PASS)
  • Storage for this thing is a pain. It takes up a bit of space whether constructed or deconstructed. (FAIL)
  • This thing is made of ABS Plastic, will last forever, and is virtually indestructible. (PASS)
  • The cheapest structure is around $150. (FAIL)
So we have a score of 2 out of 6. It also doesn't meet my top two goals.

Option 2:

The next option I found were the inexpensive play tents. I actually have real, life experience with those. Let's see how this one stacks up?

  • Once again. They are cute, but don't really inspire creativity beyond the style of the structure. (FAIL)
  • I have found myself stuck in the tubes that come with the tents. Maybe my 13 year old is skinny enough to get through, but I'm not. (FAIL)
  • Construction is similar to putting up a tent. If you can do that, then you can say it will pass. (PASS)
  • Storage is very simple, and they often come with a bag to place your parts. (PASS)
  • Very thin fabric and the thin fiber-glass frame is easily broken. Any rough housing from my older boys, it may not see the end of one season. (FAIL)
  • VERY AFFORDABLE. I've seen some as CHEAP as $15. (PASS) (Note: I said CHEAP)
Score of 3 out of 6. Better! However, neither of my top two goals have been achieved.

Option 3:

This option I found while researching some of my other options. This structure is a cardboard house or castle that you can decorate by yourself. We may have something here?

  • You can draw you own designs and decorate as you wish. That's cool, but you can do it only once. (PASS - sort of)
  • It does have an opening at the top that me or my oldest son can pop out our heads or whole body. (PASS)
  • Easy to construct with no tools necessary. I did read some reviews that complained about the instructions, but my kids are above average - "we don't need no instructions!" (PASS)
  • Just like folding up a moving box. Takes up little space at all. Just don't put it next to the recycling bin. (PASS)
  • Cardboard + Water = HOT MESS! That won't last a rain storm or an errant child with a sword/large stick. (FAIL)
  • At $45, this is pretty darn affordable (PASS)
Score 5 out of 6. Almost perfect. Meets my top two goals, but at what price. Especially if it will fall apart and can be decorated only once. I may get this as an indoor play house, for my daughter, but if I had to buy it more than twice - Budget would also be busted.

So, Can I build it a play house for less with that may have some traits that PASSED above, but expands the possibilities? YES WE CAN! (Thanks Bob the Builder)

Step 2: Design Considerations

When planning the design of the build, I kept my goals in mind:

Creativity:

I want to make a structure that will encourage the kids to be creative and think of it more than just a house or a fort. I want them to be able to use this as a place where they can also show off their creativity.

Size:

Most of the structures that I researched had a basic foot-print of 36" x 36" up to 50" x 50". In order for me or my son to sit with our legs outstretched, we would need a foot-print that is about 40" x 40".

The biggest obstacle in the BUY options is height. I want to make sure I, or my oldest son, can at least get on our knees without hitting our heads. That would mean a height of about 51". (These measurements are based on a diagram I use for most of my makey-makey plans involving people, thanks NASA)

Material:

What lasts forever and doesn't need any types of sealants to ensure it's longevity? Definitely not wood, but what material is available that would be as durable as ABS? The answer is simple - PVC. It is also pretty cheap and easy to use as a construction material.

Heck, just look to some of the other Instructables that use PVC Pipe:

These builds were good inspiration. Heck, the KidWash could possibly be part of this build?

PVC will also work towards meeting the goals of easy to construct (no tools), easy to store, and longevity/durability. This is great!

The PVC is an excellent base for the structure, but what am I going to cover it with?

  • I could just clip some cheap tarps to the outside
  • Maybe some old blankets or sheets
  • Towels?
  • There are so many options . . . Let me think on this a little more.

Step 3: Concept Drawings

Let me start off by saying that I'm a "pencil and paper" kind of guy. Don't get me wrong, I love my technology, but the simplicity of design using good-old graph paper is what works best for me. If you can put my plans in something like "Sketch-up" or some other CAD software, be my guest. Just make sure you share - PLEASE!

Concept Drawing:

Construction base:

  • I went with an overall footprint (w x l) of 42" x 42". I like 42" than 40" because it's easier to say it's 3 1/2 feet. Silly, but all designers have their quirks.
  • These dimensions also lets me sit with my legs out.
  • The height is also 42" This is because if I add a roof, that will give me the clearance I and my eldest son would need in order to kneel without bumping our head.

Roof construction (with a great idea to boot):

  • I did come up with one creative idea when developing the drawings - why not make the Play House into a Stage! (A REAL Playhouse).
  • I minimized the footprint of the roof so there would be 12" for puppets or even heads to pop-out. This could also be good when in the heat of battle with Nerf Guns.
  • I also thought if I elevate the roof a little, I may be able to not only knee, but possibly stand! 18" should be enough.
  • In order to make a traditional "triangular prism" roof design, I had to do some math - UGH! Thank goodness for Pythagoras. Because the standard PVC elbow connectors are 45 and 90 degrees, it was easy to compute the length of the sides. This means I will have about 15" more in clearance
  • That makes a total of 78" (6 1/2 FEET). This is getting even better!

Step 4: PVC Frame: Materials

Based on the concept drawings, I had to come up with my list of materials and potentially reconsider the dimensions if I may have screwed something up. When building with PVC, you have to take into consideration the size of the connectors and the depth the pipes go into the connectors. This will affect the the ACTUAL length of the PVC pipes being used. I have chosen 1" PVC as my primary construction material.

  • The connectors are all 2" depth (-4" from each side)
  • Pipes use 1" of length to fit in the connectors (+2" from each side)
  • So each side of the frame in the diagram will actually be (-2") of PVC Pipe
  • Given those considerations

Given those considerations, these are the pieces I will need:

  • 11 x 40" pipe
  • 4 x 20" pipe
  • 4 x 16" pipe
  • 2 x 29" pipe*
  • 2 x 10" pipe

*I subtracted only one inch because it would be connecting in the middle of a section at a T-Joint

So how many pipes is that? Approximately 56 linear feet. That means I will need 6 x (1" x 10' Schedule 40 PVC Pipe).

How many and what type of connectors?

  • Looking at my concept drawings, I can figure out how many angles and the number of necessary connections (3 way, 4 way, 5 way?)
  • I will just go through and circle/label those areas
  • I did notice that the PVC connectors are sold in Packs of 4. So I might switch out the two 3-way connectors on the top with 4-way connectors so I don't have to waste my money.


Attached is a Bill of Materials (BOM) Spreadsheet that lists all the required materials. The total comes to about $68. This is GREAT!

Step 5: PVC Frame: Fabrication

Tools Needed for Fabrication:

  • Tape measure
  • Marking device (I love Sharpies)
  • PVC Pipe Cutter
  • Sandpaper (120 grit)

As you can see, there aren't many items that are overly dangerous to use. So getting a kid involved is a great idea. However, if you want to use a different cutting method (Mitre Saw would be useful), just keep in mind any safety considerations.

For an excellent guide on working with PVC, I highly recommend visiting PVC 101. by trevormates

Step 1:
Mark your measurements on each of the PVC pipes.

The cutting lengths for the PVC are as follows*:

PVC Pipes (1-4) - 40"; 40"; 20";16"

PVC Pipes (5-6) - 40"; 40"; 29"; 10"

Step 2:
Cut your PVC using the PVC Pipe Cutter.

CAUTION: Be sure to follow any safety requirements associated with any tools that you use

Final product should be:

• 12 x 40" pipe
• 4 x 20" pipes
• 4 x 16" pipe
• 4 x 4" pipe
• 2 x 29" pipe
• 2 x 10" pipe
• 2 x 1" pipe

Don't discard the extra pieces. Those could come in handy for alternate configurations.


Step 3:
Use the sandpaper to "Deburr" (aka get the junk plastic off) the pipe ends. This will help when constructing the structure by making it easier to get the pipe in and out of the connectors.

Step 4:
Connect the joints to select pieces of conduit.

The following are the specific "joint-to-conduit" pairings. (BE SURE TO REFERENCE THE PICTURES):

• 3-Way to 40" (x4)
• 4-Way to 40" (x4) - Insert into straight connector (not the elbow)
• T-connector to 10" and 29" (x2) - this will make a straight piece
• 45-connector to 20" (x4)
• (2x) 90-connector to 40" - This is not backwards, two connectors on one pipe.

It is your choice as to whether you glue the connectors to the pipes. I have chosen not to permanently bond them so I can keep my options open for potential alternate configurations.

Step 6: PVC Frame: Construction

OK, the really hard part is done. Putting the pieces together should be a breeze.

I did splurge a little on COLOR Connectors for the PVC pipe. These are also available from my source and add only more $5 to the build. It adds some fun to the structure and I've also come up with a color scheme that will make construction much easier for the kids.

Step 1
Using the pipes with the 3-way (GREEN), assemble them to form a square. This is your base.

Step 2
Place the four (4) pipes with the 4-Way (BLUE) into each of the corners of the base. These are your support columns.

Step 3
Place the two (2) pipes with T-Connectors (WHITE) between the 4-Ways (BLUE) parallel to each other. Ensure that the T-Connectors are also parallel with the open connection is pointing up. This will support your roof/stage structure.

Step 4
Place the two (2) 40" pipes without connectors between the open ends of the 4-Ways (BLUE) parallel to each other. This completes the top of your structure

Step 5
Place the four (4) pipes with 45-Connectors (YELLOW) into the pipe with the 90-Connectors (RED).This will be your roof.

Step 6
place the four (4) 16" pipes into the open ends of the 45-Connectors (YELLOW). These are the columns for your stage and support the roof.

Step 7
Place the constructed stage/roof structure on the top of the cube structure, inserting the corners into the T-Connectors (WHITE) and the 4-way Connectors (BLUE).

STRUCTURE COMPLETE!

Step 7: Exterior Coverings

Here is where I encountered my biggest design challenge. How am I going to cover the structure? So I decided not to decide. Instead, I let my kids have a chance to be creative and see what happens. Isn't that one of the goals of my build?

The one tool we (me and my kids) found that is an absolute must with any type of makeshift covering are spring clamps. These can be found almost anywhere - varying in price and material (some CHEAP, some INEXPENSIVE). You probably already have some laying around your house/garage. For this project, make sure that you use spring clamps with a 1" minimum opening. Using the spring clamps, we have utilized various coverings for our structure:

  • Blankets
  • Towels
  • Table Cloth
  • Tarps
  • Sewing Fabric from Grandma

I did come up with an idea that would be a little more permanent. The design hit me when I was sitting in a beach chair. I decided to sew canvas panels with sleeves for the PVC Pipes - isn't that the basic construction of a beach chair? Those chairs seem to last at least a few years before needing to be pitched, so it should definitely work for this project.

I also am using this as a storage method for the pipes when deconstructed. It does add some cost to the build, but doesn't have to be done at the same time as the structure.

Step 8: Alternate Configurations and Add Ons

Here is the area that I could use the help of the Instructable community. I have some ideas, but I'm sure other Makers can use this as a base for other creations.

• One thing I did realize is that I could use the scrap 4" pieces in order to "lower" the roof - essentially removing the stage area. This would make the structure a little more compact and cozy.
• I bought a couple of PVC Slip T-Connectors to use my extra 40" pipe as a curtain holder for the stage. Use some shower rings and add some scrap fabric and you are in business
• You can cut down a length of 1X10 board to 44" and lay it down in front of the stage/roof structure and actually have a "stage"

Step 9: Reflecting on the Process

Issue:
I have three very happy children. That's not an issue? Is it?

Considerations:
I think I will have to do this more often. I really enjoyed gathering all the information and requirements for this Instructable. This process made me rethink and retool the build significantly in order to make it easier for others, and my children, to put the finished product together (and tear it apart). It allowed me to help showcase some other awesome Instructables and hopefully lead to even more improvements from this maker community through CONSTRUCTIVE comments. (I wasn't joking - if someone could put my plans into SketchUp or CAD. . .)

Goals:
• Build a creative, size appropriate, easy to construct, sturdy, and relatively inexpensive play structure for my kids. (PASS)
• Put together an Instructable of which I am proud to put on the Inter-web. (PASS)

Some of you may have noticed that I wrote this in a style similar to the "Investigative/Scientific Method". I like to do this to show my kids a useful method of applying process to problem solving. It also shows that the method isn't just for Science - it's for most things that we do in life.

I hope you enjoyed my first Instructable, and hopefully this won't be my last.

<p>Fun idea. Do you have any pictures of the final setup?</p>
<p>I did add the photos of the final build. Check it out, and vote if you like it.</p>
I'm getting there. I will be doing more updates in the next week.

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Bio: I'm a maker dad that is always thinking of ways to "tinker". I have no areas of specialty. I have no extraordinary skills. I ... More »
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