If you’ve been to Camp Friedenswald in the past five years, it’s likely that you either saw evidence of, or heard stories about, a new playground. During that time you might have wondered: what’s taking so long? What’s so complicated about a playground? What IS Jonathan Fridley up to?
Turns out – quite a lot. Especially when the playground is being designed and constructed out of wood primarily harvested on-site. Building just about any other structure at Camp would have been more straightforward and less complex than the project that Jonathan Fridley, facilities director and designer of the playground, undertook when he set out to design and build a new playground for Camp Friedenswald.
The following interview with Jonathan illuminates the complexity, challenges, and joy that accompanied the playground project over the past few years. You can also read the 2021 article printed in The Friedensword that introduced and gave a brief overview of the project. (Click here for the article.)
Where did your vision for the Locust Loft come from?
Once our staff started talking about a new playground in 2018 I started looking into different possibilities. There were many things that could be included or designs that could be incorporated. During this planning process, I looked at and played on many playgrounds. Whenever my family went on a trip, I would search out unique playgrounds. Some were strategically placed logs; some were metal creations far off the ground; and some were plastic made to look like wood. It was fun to see how my family and others interacted with various areas and helped me imagine what could be incorporated into a playground at Friedenswald.
I quickly identified that it would be a wooden structure. Bright plastic and metal just did not fit Camp. I had originally thought about using telephone poles but the chemicals that are used to preserve the wood are not ideal for a play area. Black locust came to mind once I saw it highlighted at a Greenbuild conference and realized that we had a number of locust trees that needed to come down.
I investigated a number of different options including having a playground company supply a play structure that was partly made out of black locust. The price was high and it just was not what we were looking for. I took ideas from lots of different places to come up with the idea of a whimsical play tower that fits the needs of Camp.
How did you turn your vision into something others could understand?
After many trips to playgrounds and countless conversations with other staff I came up with a wooden model of a structure that I thought would work well for us. The model gave me something to explain my idea better – even if I had to repeatedly assure people that – yes, it will have railings! [The model did not show any railings.] Knowing that this would be a unique project I had some hesitation but was given the go-ahead to move forward if I thought that I could build it. After getting an architect and engineer to approve the plans we were ready to start building.
I know that you thought and read a lot about risk, play, and playground safety throughout the process. How did you consider these things as you designed the Locust Loft?
As I read into playgrounds I found that some people feel that playgrounds are sometimes too safe. I completely agree that I want all kids to be safe but there are also great benefits when kids are put into situations where there is some risk. If kids grow up in a situation where everything is safe, they can live life assuming that everything is safe for them. When they get into a situation where there is risk they may not know how to navigate that risk. I feel that providing a place to play and explore with some risk can be an important aspect of a playground.
This play structure is high and has some elements that take some strength or balance. It provides the opportunity for kids to stretch a little out of their comfort zone in a controlled environment. At the same time, this play structure was designed for safety according to the Public Playground Safety Handbook. There was a lot of time spent to ensure that fall services are safe, people will not get stuck in places, and as that risk is managed.
Why Black locust? And did you construct the entire playground out of trees harvested at Camp Friedenswald?
Black locust is one of the more rot-resistant trees native to the United States. In addition to its longevity, it is beautiful as a log and when its milled. To be able to use a tree that needed to be cut down from the land here was the most sustainable product that we could find. In the end, we did purchase some deck boards, floor joists, and roof decking boards. Other than that all of the wood on the structure was fallen, milled, and debarked here at Friedenswald.
Fallen…milled…debarked…that’s a lot of time, energy and effort! Can you provide a glimpse into what it took to build?
One way I like to tell the story is through looking at one supporting tree, or log, and imagining the time that was spent to get it to where it is today.
One log was once a flushing black locust tree, likely planted around 1950, right around the time Camp Friedenswald was founded. In 2019, it was cut down in order to give more room to native black cherry and maple trees and to serve as an anchor to this new playground. The journey of this one particular log – from tree to playground post – took over 80 hours. This tree’s transformation involved:
- 6 hours selecting, falling, cleaning up branches, and moving the tree
- 5 hours of planning with architects and engineers
- 2 ½ hours digging, setting the forms, and pouring the concrete for this post
- 12 hours of debarking and planing down to sapwood
- 1 hour measuring, selecting, and moving this the log for the particular post
- 7 hours cutting the top peg to fit into the beam and bottom grove fit into the mounting bracket and bolting them into place
- 3 hours to lift this log on to the mounting bolts with ½” clearance from side to side
- 6 hours cutting, fitting, and bolting the major floor beams into the post
- 16 hours cutting, fitting and bolting eight girder beams into this post
- 6 hours cutting flat spots into the post for four structural steel bracing and then bolting it
- 6 hours getting the angled roof beam to fit against this post
- 2 ½ hours getting the roof deck and shingles to fit around this post to prevent leakage
- 1 hour covering this post with oil to extend its life
- 7 hours coping and attaching the railing posts to this post
- 2 hours attaching netting to this post
Wow! That’s a LOT of work!
Yes, and remember – that’s only one post out of 8 posts! Other logs include 7 beams, 12 rafters, 15 floor beams.
Like any project, I know there have been challenges along the way. What were some of the more difficult aspects of this project for you?
There were plenty of challenges in this project. As we dug the holes for the concrete footers we ran into the old stump that held the old rope swing. After digging for a day, we got it out. Digging the foundations needed to be done on another day.
I walked around the woods looking for black locust trees that we wanted to thin out. Several times we had a log selected that was not straight enough or had some defect that would not work for the structure. It was time to go out looking for another tree that would fit the structure.
These logs are heavy. There were times that the tractor could just lift one of the logs let alone lift three logs bolted together. Sometimes just rolling a log over was a challenge but we found a way to get all the logs prepped and up into place. We needed to get all the bark and sapwood from the logs before it could be used. This took a lot of time and energy from many people. Then there was the challenge of getting two round logs to fit together. Measuring, finding straight lines to work off, and slowly fitting the logs together.
This was one of the most difficult ways to build a structure. Had we gone to the lumber yard it would have saved lots of time. But this project was about more than building a playground, it was creating a structure out of what we had at Camp that connected people with Camp and nature around them
What kept you going throughout the project as you encountered the challenges along the way?
There were many satisfactions with this project that kept it going.
The great satisfaction when the posts and beams slid together with a tight fit. The beauty of the curvy beams and posts running into the straight deck boards. I was often encouraged when kids were playing outside the construction fence asking if the structure was going to be done tomorrow so they could play on it.
The willingness of countless volunteers and staff to help with repetitive jobs kept me going. There were many people who helped with this project. From a camper that helped for an hour to volunteers that came back week after week for over a year. Working with woodworker volunteers Jim Hostetler and Vernon King on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, was extremely helpful to the project. Other volunteers brought equipment and helped for a day or even let us borrow specialty equipment or tools.
Tell us about the name Locust Loft. How did you arrive at this name?
The short answer is that someone else suggested it and I liked the way it sounded! Since the majority of the structure was built out of black locust I wanted that to be in the name somewhere. The height of the structure was also important to me. We get a sense of risk, accomplishment, or new perspective with being in a high place. Lofts are usually up high and a great place for people to hang out.
What are you grateful for as you reach the end of the project?
I am grateful to the board and others that gave me the opportunity to dream and create a structure that excites me. I am grateful to the countless number of volunteers. I am grateful to be on this end of the project and to be able to see both kids and adults scream with joy as they explore the structure and go down the slides. It was a long process but I am glad that I was able to take on this challenge that was supported by so many.
Thanks, Jonathan – for sharing your experience and reflections with me (and many others) and for the vision, perseverance and hard work that went into making Locust Loft a reality!
The following album tells the story in pictures – from start to end.