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June 4, 2004

Team designs unique tree house for kids with special needs

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—It's a kid's summer dream to build a tree house, a dream Kelly Gardner never thought could come true for her 13-year-old son, Alex. The teen uses a wheelchair and ventilator due to a muscular disease and severe scoliosis.

But Alex, along with nearly 30 other campers from across Michigan, will be able to climb into a unique tree house, built 22 feet off the ground by a team of University of Michigan architecture and healthcare experts. The project inspired a class on designing for "super mobility." It allows kids to spend a week overcoming physical boundaries—swimming, fishing, horseback riding, boating and even tree climbing—at Trail's Edge Camp for Ventilator-Dependant Children at Fowler Center in Mayville, Mich.

"It's almost unbelievable at times the things he's able to do at camp," Kelly Gardner said. "It gives him freedom and independence, and he no longer sees himself as being disabled. Now we never say never to anything Alex wants to experience."

The tree house and woodland retreat, named in memory of University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital's respiratory therapist Craig Van Laanen, will be dedicated and officially open to Trail's Edge and Fowler Center campers June 6. The dedication marks Trail's Edge's 15th anniversary, and also coincides with the first day of the week-long camp.

Two years ago, Trail's Edge first offered its campers the chance to climb trees using a special harness and pulley system that lifted ventilator-dependent campers, without their wheelchairs, safely off the ground and into the branches of a large red maple tree that campers affectionately named Reta.

Although he was initially nervous on his first climb up Reta, Alex says he felt a sense of freedom once in the branches and looking down at his wheelchair. Other campers, too, had similar experiences and did not want to come down from the tree—giving Trail's Edge volunteers a great idea, said Mary Buschell, Trail's Edge Camp director and a respiratory care therapist at the U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

"At that point, we realized how incredible it would be to create an environment for our campers up in the trees," she said.

To get the project started, Buschell and other Trail's Edge volunteers enlisted the help of Kristine Synnes, a U-M architecture and urban planning lecturer, to design and construct the tree house.

Synnes, along with then-graduate students Cathy Maurer and Mark Weston and architecture professor Peter von Buelow, was determined to create a tree house that would give campers "super mobility or mobility beyond a person's perceived mobility, regardless of physical restrictions or limitations" in an area that would not disturb the natural surroundings, she said.

The first obstacle facing the team, however, would prove to be its most challenging: With no trees strong enough to support a large tree house, Synnes and her team would need to design not only the tree house, but a support column for it that would blend with the natural surroundings.

With steel branching both downwards as roots and upwards as branches, the architectural team created a support column, called a cantilevered base, to cradle the tree house and blend with the natural wooded surroundings. The 11-foot by 32-foot tree house is also nestled within the leafy canopy of the campers' favorite climbing tree, Reta.

Just like their tree climbing days, campers will be lifted up to the tree house without their wheelchairs using a harness and a pulley system. When they reach the tree house, a chair, similar to a ski lift, will swing in behind the secured campers, allowing them to move around the entire structure. Railing also has been specially designed to give campers a safe, unobstructed view of the Fowler Center woodlands from their mobile seats. The tree house is capable of holding four children in wheelchairs and about 18 adults.

"The kids inspired us to design a unique tree house that allows them to experience nature as we all do, despite their perceived mobility issues. Everyone, whether in a wheelchair or not, accesses the tree house in the same way. Up there, everyone is the same," Synnes said.

While the tree house took 45 volunteers nearly two years to complete, Buschell and Synnes agree that the project's outcome far exceeded their expectations. And campers like Alex can't wait to try out their new home up in the trees at Trail's Edge.

"The tree house is going to be so cool. I'm really excited to try it out," Alex said. "I look forward to camp every year because it makes me feel like there isn't anything I can't do—even kids without disabilities have never done some of the things I've accomplished at camp."

The experience even inspired Synnes to teach a U-M architectural class that focuses on the concept of supermobility to provide her students with a new perspective on design and accessibility for people who use wheelchairs.

Contributions from the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the Philoptochos of the Greek Orthodox Church and Craig Van Laanen Foundation—totaling $110,000—made the tree house project possible.

Since Trail's Edge is only a week-long camp, the tree house will also be open for all other campers at the Fowler Center to use throughout the year.

Trail's Edge Camp is run by health care professionals—nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians, physical therapists and occupational therapists—who double as camp counselors. Each child has a partner who provides primary, round-the-clock care, and every cabin has a leader and a health staff member to monitor each camper's well being. Campers, who stay at the camp for free, generally range in age from 3 to 18 years and most are repeat visitors.

Related links:

Trail's Edge Camp >

A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning >


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