Asheville Playgrounds

written by Bill Kopp

In 2006, Evelyn Anderson and Jerry Hajek were ready to leave Houston, Texas. In their many years together, the couple had lived all over the United States, and they traveled a good bit as well, often staying in campgrounds with their recreational vehicle. But they had eventually settled in Houston, where Evelyn launched a plant nursery. "One that didn't succeed," she explains with a hearty laugh. By that point, Jerry had spent most of his adult life in working as a draftsman in the commercial/industrial sign industry. "My cocktail party joke," he says, "was that I get to tell you where to go!" But by '06, the married couple was on the hunt for new challenges and a change of scenery.

The idea that seemed the hold the most appeal was to buy a campground; doing so would combine their recreational interests with entrepreneurship. So they started looking around to see what might be available. What they quickly discovered was that they didn't have the kind of financial resources to start up and sustain a campground business. "There would have been a lot of upfront costs," Evelyn says. So they widened their search to consider other kinds of opportunities.

Evelyn and Jerry's regular camping trips had brought them to Asheville before, and in '06, they visited again. While in town, they picked up a copy of the local free altweekly paper, Mountain Xpress. "We were looking at the classified section in the back of it," Evelyn recalls," and there was a playground company for sale. So we bought it."

It really was that simple. Even though they had no experience with building playgrounds -- or owning one, as they don't have kids -- Evelyn and Jerry were instantly drawn to the idea. "Nothing prepared us for doing this," Evelyn says with a hearty laugh. But that's not really true. As former kids themselves, they have a pretty good idea of what does and doesn't qualify as fun. Kids then and now can find joy in the simplest things.

"I grew up in Southern California," says Jerry. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in the municipal park bear his family's home. "Other than that," he recalls, "my brother and I would go out and scrounge cardboard refrigerator or stove boxes from an appliance store. We'd come back home, sit there and tape the stuff all together, and cut holes in it with a knife. That would be our rocket ship or race car." He brings that same spirit to the playgrounds he designs and builds today.

And in fact Jerry and Evelyn did bring some relevant skills to the venture. "We have both remodeled several houses," Evelyn says. "We like building things," Evelyn says. "It's so creative. We really have so much fun, especially with the mimicry."

What she means by mimicry is the fact that their company, Asheville Playgrounds, doesn't sell prefabricated, mass-produced, assembly-line-created playground equipment. What they do is a fascinating mix of architecture, function and more than a touch of whimsy. Every Asheville Playgrounds project is a custom design and installation, and the couple works with its clients to design playgrounds that are more than just fun: they're in harmony with the terrain and adjacent architecture.

Tim McGinniss had launched Asheville Playgrounds decades earlier, in 1985. In its original incarnation, the company focused almost exclusively on modest backyard projects of a patterned nature; custom work wasn't a part of the mix.

When Jerry and Evelyn took over the business, they initially continued to follow the path paved by McGinniss. "We were doing a lot of small background playgrounds, and a few developments, but not a lot of commercial work," Evelyn says. "We were going great guns all through 2007 and the first half of '80." Right at the start, Evelyn had drawn up a detailed business plan. "One of the questions we asked ourselves was, 'What are the possibilities for failure?' she recalls. Her business plan reflected their answer. "The only thing that could probably hurt us would be a recession," she wrote.

And then the Great Recession hit.

"All the developers went away, and all of the residential work went away," Evelyn says with a grimace. "About two-thirds of our business, pffft, overnight." Jerry chimes in: "The phone literally stopped ringing, for a month." Though they had built up a skilled team to handle multiple projects, once work evaporated, Evelyn and Jerry were forced to let all of their employees go. "It was just me and Jerry," Evelyn says.

Eventually they bounced back, and today the team includes six people, with a seventh to be added soon. The business is now thriving, extending its reach throughout the Southeast. Most of Asheville Playgrounds' work is in the Carolinas, but they've built playgrounds in Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama and other states as well.

From design to concept to play
A typical Asheville Playgrounds project goes through a number of stages from inquiry to completion. Evelyn says that most of the company's business inquiries come via its website or referrals. "So they already have kind of an idea what we do," she says. Evelyn engages the prospective client in conversation to learn more about their vision and goals for the playground. If it's a family, she starts by asking, "What do your children like to do?"

If the potential job is on a commercial scale, Evelyn often finds herself working closely with a landscape architect already involved in the larger project. "They're doing the conceptual design for subdivisions and parks, so they know the general idea of what they want," she says. "So we filter that into what we can actually do, and what would be safe."

And fun is always at the heart of every project. For residential projects, Evelyn starts by taking a bunch of photos of the house and grounds. "Then I just stare at the pictures," she says. A recent project, completed last January, is a representative example. "The family's house is a Mediterranean-style home with a blue tiled roof," she explains. "The mother wanted something for her children that looked similar.

Even though Asheville Playgrounds is a relatively small business with only six full-time employees, there's plenty of talent on the team. Tommy Holland, for example, is an accomplished welder. And his creative skills were applied on this project. "Built in the '20s, the house has little 'Juliet' balconies," Evelyn says. "So Tommy welded little balconies as part of the playground structure." Because the playground is strategically sited in a niche on the family's property, the house and playground work together visually.

Jerry jokes that Evelyn has the easy part of the job. "She gets to dream," he says with a chuckle. "And then I have to figure out how to make it real." Working with a variety of materials -- primarily wood, metal and plastics -- Jerry has to design the components of the custom playground. "I have to figure out how the guys can build it," he says. That often involves creating assemblies at the shop, and putting the components together onsite in an efficient manner.

Whenever possible, the team at Asheville Playgrounds endeavors to build as much of the playground in its shop, where the elements can't complicate or delay their work. "There's always going to be a little site building," Jerry acknowledges. "But we try to minimize that." Their approach means that when the components are delivered to their destination, the process of final assembly is relatively straightforward. "Site allowing, if you're dealing with modules," he says, "you should be able to put it together quickly."

Evelyn has noted some changes in the world of playgrounds these last several years. "Designs are a lot more abstract," she says. "The idea is that there's no specific entrance or exit. The kids can [decide] how they play on it."

Asheville Playgrounds' approach is fundamentally different from the "erector set" character of mass-produced playgrounds. Jerry says that regular commercial playground manufacturers might offer an array of components. "Type A, Type B and so on," he says. Their customers pick from those pieces, already designed to fit together. And in those cases, there's often one key provision: the site has to be perfectly flat. "If it's not," he explains, "They'll bulldoze it flat."

Jerry and Evelyn make no such demands of their clients. Asheville Playgrounds are designed to fit into -- and coexist as a part of -- the existing landscape and terrain. And they can make imagination into reality. "With wood, you can build almost anything," Jerry says.

And not every project is outdoors. Evelyn and Jerry are particularly proud of a project they did for Over the Moon Play Space in downtown Cary, N.C. The centerpiece of the more than 10,000 square foot indoor playground is a 21-foot tall play structure styled after SpaceX's Dragon 1 rocket capsule. "The nose of the rocket pierces through a suspended ceiling," Evelyn says. "Above that, Jerry hung a screen, and they project a star field on it."

Over the Moon's owner Benjie Davis realized that Asheville Playground could make his outer space vision a reality when he saw another very different project they had already completed. North Carolina's Alamance County acquired a small island in the middle of the Haw River, and wanted a playground as part of its new park. In keeping with the river theme, they asked for a bowfin fish-shaped structure. Jerry and his crew designed a massive fish-like structure -- complete with a slide that comes out of its mouth -- using tapered wood boards. There's a rock climbing wall on one side, and a tailfin that riffs on the traditional "monkey bars" concept.

That successful installation led to the Over the Moon project. Jerry laughs as he imagines what Benjie Davis thought when he first saw the Alamance playground: "If they can build a fish, they can certainly build a rocket!" The initial concept came in outside Davis's budget, so Jerry and Evelyn "value-engineered" some of the playgrounds' components to bring the cost in line. "He loves it, and the kids go nuts!" says Evelyn.

Safety and durability are engineered into every project from the very start. "We try to build [to withstand] nuclear war," Jerry quips. "So kids are easy." There are remarkably few national standards that apply to outdoor playgrounds." In a proactive move, Evelyn long ago traveled to Memphis for classes in becoming a Certified Playground Safety Inspector, a program developed by the National Parks and Recreation Association. Taking it very seriously, she has since followed up that trip with four more. "There are all kinds of [potential] hazards you wouldn't really think about," she says. As a CPSI, she's in a position to anticipate those, and Jerry designs the project accordingly to address those concerns. "Because we're building and doing our own designs," Evelyn says, "me being a CPSI is essential."

What federal regulations that do govern the design of playgrounds are outlined by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "And there's also ASTM," Evelyn says. That international standards association provides research and guidance developed from injury data worldwide. Standards set forth details like the size of openings and how small or large playground components can be. Evelyn says that unlike some industries, playground standards are universal enough that she doesn't usually have to consult a different set of rule books for each project.

In harmony with nature, helping to overcome limitations
One of Jerry's unique talents is his demonstrated ability to design a playground that is both natural -- harmonious in look and feel with its environment -- as well as conforming to the requirements of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. "Making playgrounds ADA-accessible is one of our strong suits," Jerry says with pride. Ramps are engineered into the design, allowing kids with disabilities to join in the fun. "And those ramps aren't just for kids: parents and grandparents find that they make it easier for them to stay nearby and supervise their young ones.

"We've done a couple of playgrounds with what we call 'mommy stairs,'" Jerry says. "We'll include a little spiral staircase that allows mom to get up to the deck without having to bend a knee."

As it happens, while Asheville Playgrounds' installations have a high-end look and feel, for larger projects like parks, they're often less expensive than the commodity alternatives. "In the playground world, Jerry explains, "the typical metal-and-plastic playgrounds are often at a much higher price point than wood." That means that custom playgrounds that harmonize with their surroundings can be within the reach of towns and counties on a budget. Jerry says that the company often works with municipalities that are developing their first or second big park, "and they don't have the million-dollar budget."

A smaller playground might entail a budget of around $10,000. Evelyn says that for commercial projects, a budget of several hundred thousand dollars is typical. She mentions an upcoming project twice that size for the city of Greenville, South Carolina. "That's going to take up the whole second half of this year," she says. "And we're booking well into 2022 already.

Unlike many businesses, Asheville Playground hasn't experienced a loss of business during the pandemic. "People were looking for anything to get the kids outside," Jerry says, only half in jest. And the company's focus on commercial projects -- with their accompanying larger scale and longer timelines -- is helping them pass through the COVID-19 era with a minimum of business interruption. "Commercial projects are always looking a year, two years down the road," Jerry says. "We couldn't have weathered another hit like we got with the recession," Evelyn admits.

It would seem that the limits to Asheville Playground's growth and expansion are dictated by how much work their small team can take on. But Evelyn disagrees. "We'll just get more crew!" At the time of our interview, the business was looking to hire a project manager. And the team is in growth mode. "We're busy enough that I can't do the sales and everything else," Evelyn says. She and Jerry are pleased to say that they recently brought back their sales person, Nancy O'Brien. "She was one of the people we had to let go when the recession hit," Evelyn says.

Just like kids, made of strong stuff
Along with durable and resilient pressure-treated wood, locust is a favored material for Asheville Playgrounds' projects. It's extremely durable, plentiful ("It grows everywhere around here," Jerry says) and fast-growing. "For the longest time, it was considered a 'trash tree,'" Jerry says, noting that the trunks have thorns up and down its length. (Those are removed when the wood is used in playgrounds, of course.)

"I've got several [suppliers] who cut locust," Evelyn says, gesturing toward a massive stack of logs on the company's grounds. The large, sleek trunks look like a much nicer version of telephone poles. "One supplier gets the locust from clearing land when subdivisions going in," she says. Other vendors have access to mountainsides that are filled with locust.

Mountain laurel wood also finds its way into the natural playground designs; it's typically used as a decorative touch to adorn railings, as pickets on decks and so forth. "We used to used rhododendron, too," says Evelyn. "But we stopped, because it's softer than mountain laurel." Structural roofing is typically made of metal. "It's incredibly durable," says Evelyn. "It's lightweight and easy to work with."

Plastic is used only when it makes practical sense to do so. "If there's a plastic component in the playground," Evelyn says, "it's something that already exists -- like a slide -- that we can buy wholesale." Jerry adds, "the big limitation on certain recycled plastics is that they're [often] non-structural. You can use plastic for decks and certain application as long as it's not considered part of the structure."

Custom work means challenges
Occasionally, Jerry and Evelyn are asked to do something that's simply not possible ... or safe. "We put in a deck for one family, and they wanted a zipline from the deck down to their house," he says with a hearty laugh. "We had to tell them no: 'Do you have really good insurance? With a 25-degree slope, they don't make a brake that would stop you!'"

Asked what the biggest obstacle is when working on a playground project, Jerry has a ready answer: rocks. "We're often drilling holes in the ground to put everything in," he explains. And unexpected rock is a problem. Though Jerry routinely consults geological survey maps, it's still pretty much guesswork. "You don't know what's two inches below the surface until you start digging," he says. There's no reliable way to perform the equivalent of an X-ray on the grounds to determine what's below. "We've had to start putting a 'rock clause' in our contracts," he says. "If it takes an extra week or more to get through the rock, there has to be an extra charge."

From shop to site
Jerry and Evelyn have created barn-and-silo-themed playgrounds, boats, train, airplanes, castles and mushroom-themed designs. They get to engage the whimsical inner child that lives inside each of them. A themed playground for Asheville's landmark First Baptist Church builds on the church's iconic dome, replicating it writ small as part of the climbing structure. Within reason, there are few limits on what they can design. "I'm still waiting for someone to ask us for a mid-century modern themed playground," Evelyn says with a chuckle.

After Evelyn develops a scope of the proposed project, Jerry designs a digital footprint of the playground. And drawing on his drafting skills, he often hand-illustrates an artistic rendering of the finished project. "People love getting drawings that aren't from a computer," Evelyn says.

Evelyn believes that the work that she and Jerry do takes advantage of their creative and artistic inclinations. But when it comes to the company's original designs, experience has proven the best teacher. "I don't know if you could hire somebody to do sale without them first understanding what goes into designing a playground," she says. That's one of the reasons they're so pleased to have brought Nancy back on board.

"I'm not taking the sales calls any more," Evelyn says. ""Now I mostly do estimates and the books." She also travels to the installations, in the role of project manager, while Jerry remains behind, working at the shop. "When we travel," Evelyn says, "we can be gone for a month and a half or more." So when the new project manager is hired, she'll be easing out of that role as well.

Asheville Playgrounds's office and workshop are situated in a small industrial park mere steps from Asheville High School. When Evelyn and Jerry first took over the business, they were in a building close to the roadside. "With the corner exposure, we got an awful lot of people just coming in to look around, to 'kick the tires,'" Jerry says. "It wasn't worth paying the extra rent to be on the corner." So they moved to a larger space away from the street.

"In the beginning, we just rented one building," Evelyn says. Then she and Jerry went out of town on a job, and when they came back, the adjacent building -- which had been rented two times already -- was vacant again. "We said, 'We'd better rent that now, because otherwise it's going to get taken by somebody who's going to be there for ten years!'" Evelyn recalls. It was a wise move: today Asheville Playgrounds makes full use of all available space for its design and fabrication work.

Work is play
After 45 years of marriage -- the last 15 of those running Asheville Playgrounds -- Jerry and Evelyn still look forward to each day. But Evelyn admits that it's sometimes challenging. "We each approach business differently," she says. "So we've both had to learn to moderate a bit." It helps that the rhythms of their days are in contrast with one another. "I'm a night owl," Jerry says, "and she likes the daylight." But they still manage to spend a lot of time together.

"We do have a certain amount of variability in our schedules," Jerry says. And they enjoy the work, so the lines between labor and recreation can get a little blurred. Evelyn says that what she enjoys most about her work at Asheville Playgrounds is "knowing that we're creating a lasting object. We take satisfaction in building something we know."

After 15 years in the business, it's fair to wonder if anything still surprises Jerry. "What surprises me is how much money people will pay for a playground," he says with a mock-conspiratorial chuckle. "But," he hastens to add, "people who come to us are attracted to the creativity and the uniqueness; that's what they really want. And we make it worth their while."

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