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Playhouse Rock: The 2017 SketchUp Playhouse prize winner

We’re thrilled to recognize the SketchUp Prize winner for the 2017 Life of an Architect Playhouse Competition: Playhouse Rock. Designed by Amrita Raja and Katharine Storr (, Playhouse Rock beat out hundreds of other SketchUp designs. Our team loved the idea, design, and illustration of their submission, and we were eager to learn more about Playhouse Rock.

The 2017 SketchUp Playhouse prize winner

Congratulations to you both! Speaking of which, there are two of you. The majority of playhouse designs were solo efforts. What inspired you to team up for the competition?

We met while completing our Master of Architecture at Yale, where we worked on a few extra-curricular projects together. One year, we realized that there wasn’t a guide to New Haven for incoming students, so we began a crowd-sourced Tumblr ‘Survival Guide’. Later, we collaborated on the publication of #studiooff, a compilation of student photographs documenting the studio travel program.

Having both moved to London after school, we were interested in continuing our collaboration but testing it on something architectural. We were looking for a small-scale and community-based project that had the potential to get built. Bob’s competition had been on Amrita’s radar for awhile, and it seemed to be just what we were looking for.

Tell us a bit more about how your collaboration worked in this project. What was your process like?

Once we decided to do the competition, we both analyzed the brief and brainstormed ideas separately, but from that point forward the process very collaborative -- quite literally, sitting side by side, looking across screens and sketching our way through the design. We’re both working full-time, so we agreed to meet up over a few weekends to complete the submission, in the end taking about three Sundays.

modeled Playhouse RockAmrita and Katherine modeled Playhouse Rock at a reasonably high enough level of detail.

What were the key design studies that you considered at the outset of this project?

We knew we wanted to make something interactive; we’re both interested in teaching and believe that spatial play is important to a child’s development. One of our other ideas was a greenhouse/botanical laboratory, but we thought it might be too expensive and might not work for as broad an age-group. We also wanted to have some dynamism in the structure itself which is how we came to have two connected volumes of different heights.

modeled Playhouse Rock

Many of the competition entries had a tough time resolving the real-world scale of playhouses. How did you two think about and tackle the peculiar scale at play in this competition?

With a measuring tape! We looked up averages heights of children at different ages and measured them out with a tape. Any time we were unsure about a dimension in the drawing we pulled out the tape and used that to test our guess. We also were drawing in CAD and SketchUp at full scale, with reference scale figures, so that we could see how tall and wide the elements we were drawing would be in relation to children.

Playhouse Rock Playhouse Rock + satisfied client

There are some really fun things happening in Playhouse Rock. What would you be most excited to play with in this playhouse? Where did that idea come from, and how did it develop?

Before we started designing the actual elements in the playhouse, we came up with a list of instruments and started to question how they could be incorporated spatially. We were keen to have the music generated through interacting with the surfaces in the playhouse in a variety of ways, with different parts of the human body. We were both really excited about the xylophone, and can’t wait to see how it turns out!

Playhouse Rock Xylophone time!

I was most excited about the active round windows, the guiro, which you play by dragging a drumstick around, and the rotating rain-stick. They were two instruments that I loved playing with when I was a kid. We thought it was also a way of allowing the playhouse to be used from the outside and inside.

I would love to have a go at the drum wall. I was excited that kids could chose to add their own percussive devices to the wall, take them down, rearrange them, and make the space their own.

elements within the PlayhouseDrum wall, anyone?

Once you settled on the design concept and some of the elements within the Playhouse, how did you go about splitting the work of developing the design and submission entry?

The first weekend, we reviewed potential ideas and settled on the music-themed playhouse, then began sketching our way through elements of the playhouse that would bring it to life. From a very lengthy list of pie-in-the-sky ideas, we whittled down to what you saw on our board. For efficiency we had to work simultaneously on different aspects of the project. Amrita did the 3D modeling and Katharine focused on the 2D, for example. However, it was important that we were sitting together and were constantly discussing the design decisions as we went.

One of the eye-catching aspects of your submission was the ‘unrolled elevation.’ Why did you decided to visualize the project this way?

We decided to have the cut-away perspective as the focal point of the board but this was not enough to illustrate all of the diverse activities inside without distorting information. The unrolled elevation was a way of showing the interior activity as a continuous sequence, to scale.

playhouse builds

Not many people realize that Bob Borson requires Playhouse Competition winners to produce construction documents to support the playhouse builds. Did anything come up in your documentation process that was a surprise or difficult to manage?

Nothing was particularly surprising when we were working on the construction drawings because even in the early design stages we were working out the details of the interactive elements. Because we were thinking about the project’s scale and knew that it had the potential to be built, we were trying to be practical in designing the proposal. The SketchUp model, for example, included the studwork and cladding details. We had to tweak a few elements during construction drawings for buildability, but the design principles were already established.

S-Lab produced a set of construction documentsS-Lab produced a set of construction documents to complement their winning design proposal.

It sounds like this competition was a proving ground for how your architectural friendship may continue outside of grad school. Aside from winning, did you have fun? What did you learn about working with each other in this way?

We both like to cook and eat, and even though it’s not technically part of the design process, it was very much a part of our designing experience. Our weekends were bookended with ordering pizza for lunch, working through the afternoon and cooking dinner together (and maybe a bit more work after dinner), so yes, it was lots of fun.

Amrita and Katherine’s collaborationAmrita and Katherine’s collaboration (and dinner parties) live on through S-Lab

We learned that we perceive purple differently. Early on, when thinking about the presentation board, we went back and forth looking for the right color combinations. We wanted it to be bold and gender neutral, so we chose yellow and purple as a general scheme, but then finding a purple that we both agreed on was more tricky than we had anticipated. It turns out, we’re both very picky, but luckily there are an infinite number of shades of purple and we found one we were both happy with.

Despite all that we have in common as designers -- our enthusiasm for people-focused design, a shared belief that the aesthetic and practical aspects of a design must be balanced -- we often found ourselves playing devil’s advocate with each other. This, we think, will be a strength of S-Lab moving forward.

So what’s next for you two? What are you hoping to accomplish with S-Lab?

We’d like to use S-Lab as a platform to explore research projects and design work that improves the end user’s quotidian experience. We would love the opportunity to continue collaborating with organizations to raise awareness for their causes, or to support them with design work. We’re currently beginning our next research project, investigating the accessible washroom.

Congratulations again to Amrita and Katherine. Just like last year’s winner Riann Kotze, they’re now queued up for a free trip to our next 3D Basecamp.

About the Author

A product manager on the SketchUp team, Mark is also an avid Colorado outdoorsman. You’re likely to find him roaming Boulder's mountain bike trails, scaring up marmots, pikas, and black bears.

Profile Photo of Mark Harrison