Syracuse University Magazine

05-site-playing.jpgPlay Perch wraps around an old-growth tree on Jowonio's nature trail.

Accessible Adventure

Surveying the world perched high in a tree is one of the simple joys of childhood. But how can a child with a physical disability join in on the fun? That was the question posed by a young boy at Jowonio—a preschool recognized for its integrated curriculum for all children, including those with special needs—who wanted a tree house on the school grounds that would be accessible for all of his friends, including those in wheelchairs. The school turned to the Syracuse University chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students Freedom by Design (AIAS FBD) group to help it explore the feasibility of designing and building an accessible tree house on a hill overlooking its playground. “Most of our projects cost under $10,000 and can be completed in 10 days or less,” says Chad Brock ’16, director of AIAS FBD, which uses high-level design and construction techniques to improve the lives of community members with physical or mental disabilities. “The tree house project has proven to be far more ambitious than that.”

Beginning in August 2012, the AIAS FBD team worked with its faculty advisors, architecture professors Sinéad Mac Namara and Larry Bowne, to develop design concepts for the tree house based on input from Jowonio staff, who stressed the space must be built to child-scale, completely accessible, and serve as an outdoor interactive classroom that will capture the children’s imaginations and curiosity. Before the end of the summer, it was clear the tree house project—later dubbed Play Perch—would require more than a few hours of volunteer work a week, so it was expanded into a three-credit independent-study course at the School of Architecture taught by Mac Namara and Bowne. “This was a brand new experience for most of us,” says Steven O’Hara ’15, project manager. “We were learning how meticulous our design had to be. We had to consider complete specifications and many details you don’t think about in a design studio, where it’s ‘talkatecture.’”

The students settled on a metaphorical design concept inspired by the Eastern bluebird (the official New York State bird) combined with the giant AT-AT (All-Terrain Armored Transport) of Star Wars fame. The abstract structure wraps around an old-growth tree on the school’s nature trail, which the students cleared and graded to make fully wheelchair accessible. The side panels of the structure feature a feather pattern to create perforations, and star constellations that are fabricated into the tree house underbelly. The indoor space includes portholes, a telescope, a specimen table, a crawl-through tunnel, and a custom-made rope ladder for children to climb on. The ground directly in front of the tree house drops off precipitously, creating the impression of a giant bird about to take flight. “The children can step out onto or roll up into a protruding ‘beak’ window that provides a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding landscape,” O’Hara says. “The elevated vantage point gives them a sense of adventure.”

Designing Play Perch was only the first step in the process. Moving on to the construction phase, the AIAS FBD team broke up into smaller groups responsible for fabrication, administration, and marketing. They learned how to create and stick to a budget, manage their time, and hire local sub-contractors, fabricators, and electricians to help bring the tree house to life. They also learned how to raise funds for the project—including a $15,000 grant from Chancellor Cantor. “Syracuse has a reputation for being a community that knows how to do stuff, so it was nice to find almost all of the materials and skills we needed right here in town,” Brock says. “We used a lot of local family-owned companies, and in many cases, we were able to get discounts and free shipping.”

Although the team initially underestimated the scope of the project and the amount of time it would take to construct it, the only major obstacle they encountered was unpredictable winter weather that delayed the project’s completion date, originally scheduled for December. Finally, on a beautiful day this spring, Play Perch was dedicated at a ribbon-cutting ceremony with all of the Jowonio students in attendance. “The Jowonio family is so grateful to have worked with the visionary students and faculty of the Syracuse University School of Architecture,” says Ellen Barnes, executive director of Jowonio. “They have been creative, persistent, and incredibly responsive to our needs. This magical place in the woods is a gift that will provide opportunities for all of Jowonio’s students to have year-round exposure to the outdoors for many years to come.”

O’Hara says he was excited to see the kids using the tree house just like it was designed to be used. “They were climbing, jumping, crawling, and even sitting quietly alone in spaces we designed specifically for that purpose,” he says. “I had a feeling of real pride.” Brock says his greatest reward was seeing the excitement of the kids and realizing that Play Perch will have a life long after he and the other AIAS FBD team members have moved on. “Play Perch turned out much better than we could have ever hoped,” he says. “This project enhanced my educational experience in so many ways.”     —Christine Yackel

Play Perch

construction_2.jpgMembers of the Freedom by Design group of the SU chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students lay the flooring and install the beak window of the Play Perch tree house in preparation for its dedication on May 10.


DSC_0385.jpgJowonio students have fun exploring all of the cool spaces designed into their new tree house.
Photos courtesy of SU School of Architecture