Couple leading charmed life creating luxurious playhouses
The elaborate playhouses under construction in Tyson Leavitt’s 5,000-square-foot southern Alberta workshop are nothing like the rickety backyard A-frame where Leavitt played as a child.
While spiders and slivers were commonplace in Leavitt’s longago playhouse, the creations he now oversees are designed by an award-winning architect, professionally decorated and placed in backyards across North America by crane.
Buoyed by memories from his own childhood, the 32-year-old father launched a company last year dedicated to building “fantastical” backyard structures where children can leave the electronics behind, use their imaginations and play.
And despite an ailing economy in a province hard hit by slumping oil prices, the luxury playhouse business is booming.
“It’s crazy ... We’re in Lethbridge, Alberta. It’s a Prairie town, population of (about) 90,000 people, and here we’re building the most expensive and luxurious playhouses in probably all the world,” said Leavitt, CEO, craftsman and builder at Charmed Playhouses.
“It was a stupid idea, but I guess it was just stupid enough to work. It’s one of those niche markets that no one else is really doing.”
Leavitt’s creations, which include an eight-metre tall Rapunzel castle straight out of a storybook, a whimsical Hobbit hole and an over-the-top backyard pirate ship, caught the eye of popular American cable network TLC.
Leavitt and his wife, Audy, 30, are now juggling a rapidly growing business with three kids, aged seven, five and four, as a Los Angeles television crew films for a TLC show set to launch later this year.
“It’s a completely different world for us. Life has done a 180 in the past year,” said Audy, who was a stay-at-home mom and part-time fitness instructor a year ago.
“Now, today, I’m working full time in the business and we’re about to be on TV, which is not something I ever in a million years would have expected would become part of my life.”
Speaking in the company’s workshop a few kilometres outside Lethbridge city limits as staff worked on a long castle destined for an interactive theme park in China, Leavitt also expressed surprise at where life has taken him.
“I never thought I would be building princess castles for a living,” he said. “Whenever I walk in here, I pinch myself.”
After running a landscape business for a decade and building beautiful outdoor spaces for grown-ups, Leavitt wanted to make something that would draw kids outside without detracting from the yard.
He built a tree house for his children and, soon, more elaborate structures followed. When Leavitt displayed a cylindrical custombuilt Rapunzel themed playhouse at a local home and garden show last year, he found a demand for the luxury dwellings.
By March 2015, his company had a name and was incorporated, and the next month Leavitt’s uncle, Derral Zaugg, quit his 25-year career as a cabinetmaker and became Charmed Playhouse’s first employee and project manager.
Zaugg believes his nephew’s tenacity and can-do attitude combined with the sentimental charm of the playhouses is behind the company’s rapid success.
“They interest adults as well as the kids. It brings back those childhood memories,” he said.
In addition to hiring his uncle, Leavitt enlisted American-based architect Wayne Visbeen to make clients’ ideas come to life on paper.
The Charmed Playhouses team of carpenters builds directly off Visbeen’s whimsical sketches, and finishes the interiors with features including electricity, fireplaces and cabinets.
The business is a family affair, with Leavitt’s wife of 11 years decorating the inside of the playhouses and his kids acting as chief playhouse testers, giving the lavish buildings a stamp of approval before they’re shipped to backyards across North America.
It will all be documented on the upcoming television series, which Leavitt’s wife initially shied away from.
A private person, she didn’t want the family’s triumphs and struggles aired on national television, but eventually had a change of heart and said she hasn’t looked back since.
“Tyson was all for it right from the get go. I said no for a very long time,” Audy said. “My biggest fear and his greatest dream were colliding.”
Television crews have filmed as the company has grown quickly — today Leavitt has 15 employees in a bustling construction space, with plans to soon occupy more space and hire five more workers.
Depending on the design, products range in price from about $7,000 to as high as $100,000, and Leavitt said the low loonie is helping fuel business across the border.
“The low dollar is perfect for what we’re doing right now ... It allows us to ship far and wide,” he said.
The custom-built backyard hideaways are designed to break down into multiple pieces for easy shipping and quick installation, and Leavitt and his crew typically install the structures in an afternoon.
He said there’s nothing quite like unveiling a playhouse for eager parents and kids.
“When we show up, it’s almost like you’re a rock star,” Leavitt said.
The father hopes the lavish playhouses will become a place where kids can let their imaginations run free, like Leavitt did as a child in the simple backyard A-frame his father built him.
“It’s exciting for parents,” Leavitt said. “To see our kids have that fantasy land in the backyard is nostalgic. We all want to be kids again.”