The Ultimate Treehouse

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January 2008


Aspen/Snowmass started from scratch and created the ideal children's center.
"Investing in the youngest generation" is a dictum the Aspen Skiing Company has taken to heart. ASC's groundbreaking Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center at Snowmass, which opened in November, cost a cool $17 million-the resort's largest single-project capital outlay ever. Combining kids' ski school, rental, and retail operations with family entertainment and unique interactive play features, the 25,000-square-foot Treehouse is much more than just a hub to get children on snow.

On the most basic level, the Treehouse brings a previously dispersed group of meeting areas and facilities under one roof. "If you had four ages, you were going to four different places, and the overall experience was exhausting," says Sue Way, the director of children's programs for the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen. Plus, parents and kids five and older had to walk across the busy Fanny Hill beginner run to get to their lessons. "Now parents are going to go, 'Wow, it's all in one spot,'" Way adds.

And a central spot at that. The Treehouse is at the core of a new base village taking shape at Snowmass. The building's centralized location gives guests immediate access to a gondola, a high-speed six-pack, a cabriolet that shuttles skiers to additional shops and restaurants on the Snowmass pedestrian mall, and several Magic Carpets. Free buses stop at the center, and drivers can park in the new underground garage or nab a 30-minute spot in a short-term lot.

A WHOLE NEW ANIMAL

With the opportunity to conceive the kid's center from scratch, Way and her colleagues identified three priorities: "We wanted it to be one-stop shopping for all ages, be parking accessible, and be on the slopes," she says. "We were able to get all three of those."

But what really sets apart the Treehouse from other kids' ski centers are its themed age-appropriate rooms. Each is devoted to a different aspect of the mountain ecosystem, and incorporates entertainment elements almost like a theme park. Extraordinary attention to details keeps kids engaged (even if adults may not be aware of them).

Yes, Aspen went out of the box on this project. In addition to working with local architecture firm Cottle Carr Yaw, SkiCo called on Lexington, a Los Angeles-based design studio known for its work on children's museums, theme parks like Universal Studios and Sea World, and stage sets. This was Lexington's first ski-area project, and it rewrote the book on daycare.

The facility is quite literally state of the art, with whimsical murals, creatively assembled "trees" and ingenious interactive installations, such as an aspen-tree climbing structure and a crawl-into fox den. "It's a place where kids can be kids, with stuff designed for them," says Way. "It was thought out through the mind of a little child climbing around. And when they aren't skiing, they're going to be able to interact. It's not just kids sitting at a table with a coloring book."

As kid-centric as it is, the Treehouse had to appeal to parents, too-the ultimate decision-makers. "Families who come to Aspen are really savvy to high-end design," says Patti Drum, vice president of design for Lexington. "That took the building to a certain level."

TOURING THE TREEHOUSE

The tone is set before you even walk in the door. A two-story canopy outside the lower level's main entrance supports a massive timber topped by abstract metal "branches" growing up to the peaked roofline.

Inside is the registration area for the state-certified Snow Cubs daycare program, which accepts children ages eight weeks to four years. After sign-in, kids having separation anxiety can hang out longer with their parents in the Tender Loving Care Room. Moms can feed infants in a dedicated nursing room.

The children in Snow Cubs are placed among four themed, age-specific areas. The littlest ones, up to 18 months old, flock to the brightly-colored Butterfly Room. Toddlers can play in the Trout Haven, which has an acrylic "stream" feature that kids can pop up through; the Beaver Lodge, where they can build a "dam" with Styrofoam pool noodles; and the Fox Den, which has a series of burrows to crawl into.

All of the featured animals are endemic to the Aspen area. "We didn't want to be Disney," notes Way. "We're here in the mountains, and we wanted to pull nature from the outside into the inside, taking young children on a mountain journey." Plus, the themes get kids amped for subsequent visits. "The identity of each room is empowering for kids," says project architect Susan Touchette of Cottle Carr Yaw. "It gives them a compelling reason to return and something to get excited about."

The center's pièce de résistance, perhaps, is the Aspen Climb Room, open to all ages. Here, floor-to-ceiling poles camouflaged as aspen trunks sprout four-foot-diameter, yellow "leaves" (high- density maple plywood coated with rubber) and are wrapped with protective safety netting. The leaves are positioned horizontally and supported by structural cables, so kids can climb from one leaf to another. "Climbing units are so incredible to the development of young children," says Drum. "And kids just don't climb trees like we did." The room also houses a two-level mining-themed structure, also designed for climbing.

Up one flight on the main level, families enter a spacious lobby, with a kids-specific branch of the SkiCo's Four- Mountain Sports retail outlet off to one side. The lobby's three info and ticketing counters have textured sides, intended to occupy little hands while parents purchase lessons or complete paperwork.

Behind the lobby, the Bear Den caters to three- and four-year-olds enrolled in ski lessons. A puppet theater-where storytellers and musicians also perform on occasion-keeps kids entertained on arrival in the morning and during extended breaks. Above the bear-den play feature, a loft provides a quiet space or a place to nap.

The 2,400-square-foot, multiuse Eagle Peak Room is the center's largest single space; it includes a full cafeteria kitchen. It was also one of the trickiest elements to design, says Touchette. "It was a challenge to theme it in a way that would make it comfortable for the varying age groups and needs it's going to serve."

During the day, the focus is on ski school groups ages five and up, who can get rental equipment here in the morning and later eat lunch with their class. Après ski, Eagle Peak segues into an all-ages and family gathering place. Way's hope is to turn the traditional grab-your-kid-and-go routine into one where parents meet up with their kids after ski school and linger awhile. The cafeteria provides light snacks. Flat-screen TVs show ski and snowboard videos. On warm days, garage doors open onto the plaza. Evening programs, including childcare, kids' group activities, and teen nights, are also offered. For movie nights, the tables convert into long benches.

Striking a balance between keeping kids entertained, but not so entertained that they don't want to go out and ski, was essential. "It's not a museum that would keep them constantly engaged," says Drum, "but we needed to [find] just enough to keep kids excited and provide enough variety so they don't get bored."

And if a child insists on staying huddled in the bear den? "You bribe them," says Way. "You say, 'We'll go outside, take a few runs, then we'll go inside and play.' It should be a motivator to get kids to ski rather than a deterrent to going skiing."

PROBLEM-SOLVING

The play features aren't the only aspects of the Treehouse that reflect an unusually creative approach. The building required 14-foot-by-30-inch concrete columns throughout for support, which posed an aesthetic challenge. But, like making lemonade from lemons, "we turned those into an opportunity to make trees," says Touchette.

Wrapping the columns with wood to simulate tree trunks was dismissed at first, Drum says. "The Aspen Skiing Company has a very green attitude, and we took that to heart. We never felt like it was keeping with the mission of the project to harvest trees."

Ultimately, she hit upon a more eco-friendly solution. She discovered an L.A.-based sculptor who sources wood from Thailand-fallen logs found in the jungle, with their rotting interiors carved out. These logs now clad some of the columns at the Treehouse. "It's absolutely gorgeous," Drum says. "There's nothing like the touch of real wood, and it adds to the imagination of a child."

The Treehouse's comprehensive new programming also required a raft of new hires. Preseason, Way and her staff were planning to fill the void by recruiting more locals and capitalizing on current employees in new ways. "We hope to tap into instructors when they're not teaching skiing," says Way. "For example, the ski teacher who plays guitar may want to come in and do a little guitar in the morning [in the Bear Den]." She was also hoping to diversify the workforce, by finding teachers, parents, and even retirees who would like to work a few shifts each week. As Way points out, "What's nicer than a grandparent helping you with the kids?"

Despite the center's generous size and funding, a few items on SkiCo's wish list didn't make the final cut. "We wanted to put in a skateboard ramp and trampoline, but there just wasn't room for that stuff. And we'd talked about another floor over Eagle Peak, something that could be converted into a gym," says Way.

Minor points, really, for a building that manages to captivate both kids and adults as it sets a new benchmark for a children's facility. "This was my all-time favorite project to be involved in," says Touchette. "There's nothing of this magnitude [at a ski area], where you can provide an environment for kids from eight weeks [on up] inside one building, with so many creative things."
It probably won't be the last.
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