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Best Outdoor Living Space 2018: Kristin Barlowe-Clauer’s Garden Birdhouse for Kids Big & Small

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Best Outdoor Living Space 2018: Kristin Barlowe-Clauer’s Garden Birdhouse for Kids Big & Small

August 17, 2018

The winner of the 2018 Gardenista Considered Design Awards Best Outdoor Living Space is Kristin Barlowe-Clauer for her Garden Birdhouse for Kids Big & Small project.

The project was chosen as a finalist by Gardenista editor Michelle Slatalla, who had this to say: “Using reclaimed materials and DIY ingenuity, a father built a stylish kids’ clubhouse to turn an unloved corner of the garden into a much-used family space.”

N.B.: This is the fourth of six posts spotlighting the winners of the 2018 Gardenista Considered Design Awards. Go to this year’s Considered Design Awards page to see all the entries, finalists, and winners, and have a look at the Remodelista Considered Design Awards.

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Above: “We used the same materials as our fence—kiln-dried deck boards—stained the same color as the fence and house. The roof is cedar remnants from our friend’s roofing company. Vintage family toys litter the space.”

Kristin Barlowe-Clauer’s Design Statement: “Problem: A never used, very awkward, wet, weed-filled corner outside my home office. Needed: A cool “kid” space whose use could evolve with age, allow me to work, and visually blend from the street. My hubby James took my sketch, his vacation, and a lot of weekends to finish this garden birdhouse.”

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Above: “Outdoor rugs, cushions, and furniture hold up to the elements and kids. Lots of art supplies, games, walkie-talkies, and dominoes keep them busy. String lights and a lantern let them hang after dark. The narrow window is often used when they play store. And the left is the exit to the fire pole.”

Gardenista: Where do you live?
Kristin Barlowe-Clauer: Sylvan Park is a quiet residential neighborhood just four miles west of downtown Nashville. We renovated our Craftsman bungalow, which sits on a quarter-acre corner lot, a few years ago. It was filled with weeds, dead trees, and dying shrubs, so all but two trees had to be scrapped. We have planted loads of trees and plantings and have a large front yard and backyard. This side yard has the birdhouse fort and is tucked in between the bomb shelter (now a raised garden) and front fence.

GD: What were your practical goals for the project?
KBC: Less work. More fun. I needed a place for the kids to hang while I worked. In addition, I was sick of dealing with this awkward unused space that always required upkeep and created no joy. It was filled with weeds, grass didn’t grow well, and no one besides the HVAC guy ever went there. The challenge was that this spot is set back along the front of our house and faces the street, so I didn’t want anything that would be an eyesore or become dated. We needed to create something that would blend with the existing home, be timeless, and could have a life after young kids.

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Above: “The stainless steel pole holds up to weather and is smooth for bare skin. The climbing area has enough room for two to climb.”

GD: What solutions did you find to your design problems?
KBC: The birdhouse is a classic object, so that is where I started. We used gable pitch—like our home—and used the same materials as the fence. Then we painted it all the same color so that it blends into the surroundings. It’s also tucked just behind a newly-planted tree. It’s a surprise to most people as many say they didn’t notice it even if they had walked by the house many times. I also wanted some of the kid features to be hidden from view—like the fire pole and climbing wall. They are tucked in next to the shared fence and behind a large tree. This provides a good deal of shade most of the day and also means you don’t notice them from any prominent vantage point. With two kids they often need their own spaces, so we designed it to have two levels. There are places to sit, read, and play so they can keep busy.

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Above: “The birdhouse sits in its own little spot in the corner of the yard. Kids can hang while the adults hang out in the fire pit area beyond by that garage.”

GD: What are your favorite features of the project?
KBC: I love how it relates to the property and is fairly camouflaged against the fence, and with just a little hole to peek out of toward the street, it has an element of surprise. It looks like a birdhouse from that point. Yet, on the reverse, it is wide open to the backyard. I also like that it doesn’t stare into our neighbors’ space or backyard, so it is not intrusive to them, which I took into consideration when picking the spot and deciding where things like the upper deck and openings would go.

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Above: “The second level also stays pretty dry. An Ikea locker holds a lot, including my husband’s vintage Tonka trucks. Our son has outgrown them but the younger neighbor kids love them. The outdoor pouf is another place to sit.”

GD: What advice do you have for someone undertaking a similar project?
KBC: Try to think of a life beyond little kid age. I can see the kids reading, studying, or lounging with friends in the birdhouse. For me, I could see myself making this a quiet retreat with a hammock or floor pillows. The bottom could be an extension of the garden with a potting area. Not much is different between producing a video or commercial and creating a space. Do you want it good, fast, or cheap? You can only pick two. We wanted good and cheap, so it took us a while to get it to this point.

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Above: “The gymnastics bar is connected to the back of the birdhouse and to the fence. My office windows look directly out to the space, so I can work and referee when needed.”

GD: What was your biggest splurge?
KBC: Materials like the kiln-dried deck boards and the stainless steel fire pole and bar were the biggest ticket items. Even if a friend hadn’t given us one heck of a deal on the metals work, the material upgrade was worth it. Because we built and designed it, we saved on a lot on labor. My husband’s high school friend owns a local company called Above All Roofing, and he donated leftover cedar for our roof. It was really sweet that we had some help from friends.

GD: What projects would you tackle if you had an unlimited budget?
KBC: Oh jeez the list! At home I’d love to build what we call “the shed” into a cool hangout space. I love our cabin and the lake, so the big dream project would be a mountain lake resort filled with cool tiny cabins connected by paths with secret spaces, tree houses, hidden gardens, and other surprises scattered about. It would feature the natural surroundings and make them the star of every space and place.

The view of the birdhouse from the street.
Above: The view of the birdhouse from the street.

GD: What is your day job?
KBC: Director and photographer for music and commercial clients. My husband, James, is a writer/director/producer at CMT.

GD: Where do you get your design inspiration?
KBC: I saw an amazing story of a Japanese birdhouse in the forest. It is meant for both birds and humans, if I remember right, and you can stay the night there. I just thought it looked so interesting—like a little sculpture—yet weirdly natural in the setting. It popped back into my head as I was trying to think of this kids space.

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