Backyards Go Upscale

Doesn’t every child dream of having an elaborate playground in his or her own backyard?

Well, Barbara Butler of Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc., San Francisco, has fulfilled many of those dreams by building intricate, imaginative play structures for children.

Butler, a Political Science major who also had an interest in construction, started out building artistic backyards — fences, decks, hot tubs and more.

It was not until Butler was asked by a client to build a play structure that she realized that it was her calling.

“All of a sudden, I knew this was it. It brought together everything I like to do — play, outdoors, colors, sculpture and kids. Once I did the first one, I was hooked and I just tried to concentrate on that.”

Butler built her business through word-of-mouth and persistence, she says.

“I would only get one to two play structures a year. I was always trying innovative marketing ideas. I’d have a party at the client’s house and invite everybody — landscape professionals, my friends — and I would just try to get a buzz going about it,” she says.

Butler’s sister Suzanne Butler eventually joined her in business and invested in the company. By 1999, Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc. was incorporated and is now run by Butler, her sister Suzanne, her brother James Butler and her husband Jeff Beal.

Butler’s play structures are fabricated from second-growth redwood harvested from sustainable forests.

“Redwood is very good for outside,” Butler says. “It is durable. I like it better than cedar because it doesn’t splinter as much. And it really takes the stain beautifully. We use a lot of color stains, which we make in-house.”

The play structure designs are a combination of Butler’s ideas, what the parents like, as well as past projects. She likes to involve kids too.

“If the kids come to the table for the design process, which is my favorite thing to happen, then I ask them what they like from past projects and what they have always imagined. Sometimes kids have unrealistic ideas of what can be built. But there is usually a germ of an idea in there that you can run with.”

Butler’s client list includes a number of celebrities: Bobby McFerrin (her first request for a play structure), Robert Redford, Will Smith and Jada Pinket, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, Jasmine Guy and Walt Disney Productions.

For more information, visit

This play structure, “Rough and Tumble Outpost,” features three towers, two bridges, two slides and a jail with secret escapes. Photo courtesy of Barbara Butler Artist-Bulder Inc.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.