Lessons Learned in the Playhouse

It’s taken about 18 months to complete my son’s playhouse. Aside from putting down some pea gravel, the structure is ready for him to use and enjoy. I’ve captured pictures and tips along the way for anyone else attempting something like this.

First, this ended up being a more ambitious project than I had planned. Not just from a complexity perspective, but primarily in terms of time. Keeping to any sort of schedule is nearly impossible with a large project like this, with delays, whether from weather, family or work commitments.

Here are some of my takeaways from the project. Some of them I anticipated, some I did not.

Design With the Future in Mind

Your child isn’t going to be 48″ tall forever. I built the short-side of the playhouse 60″ tall and the door roughly 6 feet tall. This is tall enough for him to have some headroom (pardon the pun), and short enough to access the roof without a helicopter.

Having said this, your child will outgrow the playhouse, so there’s no need to design in 8-foot ceilings and crown molding.

Invest in Making Things Square

I got frustrated early on because I didn’t think it would take so long to get the corner posts of the deck set. If it’s any time to let perfectionist tendencies reign, this is it. Setting batter boards and plumb bobs is tedious, particularly if the site is sloped. The materials for this step are mostly throw-away. However, the effort will pay dividends throughout the project.

Size the Project in Two-Foot Increments

Dimensional lumber is sold in 2-foot increments. So, if you want to make the most of your lumber, plan the dimensions of your deck/floor in 2 foot increments. Slightly smaller than that is fine, but not slightly larger. For example, if you want a deck 10 feet in width, plan for edge-to-edge dimensions of 120 inches.

This means when setting your posts, don’t let yourself get confused into making center-to-center measurements meet the 2-foot increment. This was the mistake I made, and I had to buy a bunch of 10-foot decking and saw it all down to 8 foot, 5 inches. Oops.

Overbuild, Especially at the Foundation

I had a few moments of self-doubt when I was loading 6×6 pressure-treated pine posts for the playhouse. It was well worth it. Wood is flexible, and at a total height of 16 feet, I’m glad to have the extra girth at the base.

Another source that lit the way was the American Wood Council’s Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide. That guide also lays out the proper spacing for frames and joists.

Choose the Right Materials

At a bare minimum, parts of your project that come near or in contact with the ground need to use rot-resistant (like cedar) or pressure-treated pine materials. I chose pressure-treated pine for all of the deck frame and railing, and for the decking itself.

Pressure-treated (PT) lumber is about twice the weight and cost of its untreated counterparts. So far, my choice to use standard (not pressure treated) lumber on the playhouse itself, seems to be a fine tradeoff between weight, cost and durability. I applied a coat of Thomspon’s Water Seal on the surface to protect it from the elements and give it a nice color.

Fasteners

After just one season, even high-quality galvanized fasteners start to show white oxidation on the protective coating

When it comes to nails and screws, the only safe and cost-effective option for outdoor construction like a playhouse is to go galvanized. Bright steel – while cheaper and sometimes glossier than galvanized, won’t stand a chance. Even cheap or damaged galvanized fasteners and connectors will rust after just one season.

The exception I made was for the deckboards themselves. I used coated screws by Deckmate for that job.

If you are building near salt water, or just want to spend as much on fasteners as on lumber, you can find stainless steel nails and screws, but not at the big box home improvement stores.

Choose the Right Tools

…and don’t over-purchase either. Buy quality though. Here are the tools that I reached for nearly every time I worked on the playhouse:

  • framing square
  • speed square
  • cordless impact driver
  • trigger clamps
  • circular saw
  • bubble level
  • hammer

Nail Guns

At first, I resisted the thought of using a nail gun. “How lazy is that?” I’m so glad I bought borrowed a nail gun (2 actually: one for framing, the other for finishing) from a wise friend. I still got the satisfaction of hand-hammering plenty of nails despite the nail gun doing most of the work for me.

Final Thoughts

I’m not the most creative soul. As I moved through the project, I got little bits of inspiration from my son helping me and just horsing around while I was building the thing.

At the end, my wife and son promptly decorated and put finishing touches on the playhouse. Like this dinner bell triangle. Little things that made the whole project worth it.

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Jangly Guitars and Hay Bales

Tom Petty died this week.

The first Tom Petty album I discovered was Into the Great Wide Open. I was a junior in high school. It was just before Nirvana thrust the early ‘90s into grunge, and I was just starting to branch out from Erasures and Depeche Modes of the music world. “Learning to Fly” was one of my coming of age anthems.

A lot of people died in Las Vegas this week too. That news was chased by the typical politicizing and divisive interpretations of the second amendment. The one aspect that is clear to me is that no amount of concealed or open carry legislation would have saved those hundreds of festival attendees from injury or death.

The psychological blast radius from Las Vegas was so great that — as I heard on the local news — that ACL Fest was offering refunds to those fearful of a reprise. I’m hopeful the authorities will discover the motive for Las Vegas; that might ease concerns of copycats and whatnot.

In spite of all this mess, we capped the week on a high note. The three of us drove out to Rockdale for The Lights Fest, a traveling paper lantern lighting event. It made for great people-watching. We drove through some small Texas towns and ended up at a large venue with wide-open fields, large bales of hay and no city lights. A few small-time live music acts and rosy sunsets set the mood.

Aside from the tiki torches, lanterns and a handful of tents/food trucks, light pollution was non-existent. We were even able to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way streaming across the sky. It was a special evening.

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Fathers and Sons and Football

This was a special weekend for our son and me; one of those “firsts” between fathers and sons. We went to our first football game together.

It was the Oklahoma-Baylor game, in Waco. It was relatively spontaneous too: on Friday I realized the Sooners don’t physically play any closer to us than in Waco. While it is a solid 90 minute drive from Austin to Waco, it’s half the distance to Dallas and much closer than attending a home game for the Sooners.

It was also a first time I had seen the Sooners at a true away game. I had never been to McLane stadium in Waco. With a seating capacity of 45,000, it was a more intimate setting than what I was used to for college games. The facilities are relatively new, and we got great seats on the west side, in the shade, and with real seats… not benches.

Our son was a trooper. We departed Austin early, in case we were to run into unexpected delays. We arrived at the stadium almost 90 minutes early. By the time the game started, he was a little fidgety. He hung in there though, all the way to halftime.

Despite seeing only half the game in person, it was a great day for father-son bonding; one that we’ll remember and treasure for a long time.

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Cutting the Cord

For a couple of years, we had been paying upwards of $225/month combined for television, internet and phone service. There had to be a better way. This week, we finished cutting the cord.

We had been DirecTV customers for a few years, after Time Warner (now Spectrum) couldn’t deliver consistent TV service. DirecTV proved more reliable, but we were still paying $120/month for basic service. I was mildly irritated when the retention rep threw discount offers my way when I called to disconnect. Providers should instead call customers proactively to offer incentives to stay; that would be a better model.

For TV content, we are going with Sling for premium content and Tablo for basic channels. Tablo is a neat DVR that hooks directly up to an over-the-air (OTA) antenna for HD-quality local channels. I mounted a nice antenna in our attic and oriented it to the TV towers in town.

We’re also using Hulu for some additional content, at $11/month.

Spectrum is the only decent high-speed internet provider in our neighborhood; we don’t yet have access to AT&T Uverse or Google Fiber. After switching to DirecTV for TV service, we still had phone and internet with Spectrum, and were paying a little more than $100/month just for that bundle. After changing phone providers, Spectrum of course raised our internet cost to an unbundled rate, $70/month.

There are a plethora of home phone providers available, and the valuable ones offer a VoIP service that uses your existing Internet connection. We don’t use our home phone much, but wanted to keep it as a backup. The landline provider we chose offers a nationwide unlimited-inbound, 500-outbound minutes plan for $10/month. In order to hold at that rate, we had to accept a different phone number as opposed to transferring our existing one, but we were OK with that.

In the end, we went from $225/month to about $140/month in recurring cost. That’s a roughly 35%/month savings! Now I’m eager for some internet competition to enter our neighborhood so Spectrum will stop gouging us.

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In the Home Stretch

The playhouse has turned out to be a bigger project than I had planned, certainly in terms of the calendar time it’s taken to get to this point. The frame is finished, except for the placement of roof rafters. I’ve started putting up wall panels and will need to make one final lumber run for the guardrails and trim pieces.

Progress at Zenoss continues to be rapid. We are developing some exciting new features and improvements that will make our products more usable and supportable at scale. Last month’s GalaxZ user conference was a success, and our relationships with our customer base is as strong as it has ever been.

With Memorial Day approaching, I’m looking forward to our spread of family vacations this summer. Port Aransas and Hunt top our list.

I continue to maintain a health-conscious lifestyle and a weight in the 193 – 196 range. I feel so fortunate to have come this far on the journey. Every day has its challenges, and I am grateful to have developed the discipline to meet them.

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