Work of play with Lansing’s Parkitects

Steve Lauzun (left) and Diane Lauzun have spent the last 20 years designing more than 250 playgrounds across upstate New York with their firm, Parkitects.
Steve Lauzun (left) and Diane Lauzun have spent the last 20 years designing more than 250 playgrounds across upstate New York with their firm, Parkitects.
Photo by Matt Montague
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It may seem odd for a person in his 50s to have a favorite playground, but Steve Lauzun and his wife, Diane Lauzun, have spent most of their working life thinking about how kids play.

“My favorite playground is at MacArthur Elementary School in Binghamton,” Steve said after musing for a while. “The school is in a floodplain, so they built it on stilts. So, underneath was the only place where they could build the playground. It’s lit up at night.”

Steve and Diane Lauzon co-founded their playground design firm Parkitects, Inc. in 1996; they moved it to the old Grange Hall in Ludlowville in 2003.
Steve graduated from Michigan State University in 1985 with a degree in park planning and design, and Diane has a 1996 degree in interior design from Cornell University. Neither of them thought they’d make a career out of play.

“My first job out of college was as a park and playground designer in the city of Orlando,” Steve said. “My last big job there was building a Leathers and Associates playground. I moved here in 1989 to work with them.”

Leathers and Associates was started in Ithaca in 1971 by Bob Leathers. His son Marc now heads the company from their Florida office. Together with Play by Design, three out of about 50 playground design firms worldwide are in Tompkins County.

“I was a summer intern at Leathers, where I met Steve,” Diane said. “I never would have guessed that I would work at a playground design company for 20 years. When you are on an airplane and your seatmate asks ‘what do you do?’ and you tell them, they say ‘you really can do that for a living?’”

Parkitect’s 11 employees work in Ludlowville and in field offices in Albany and Buffalo. Together, they’ve designed and built about 250 playgrounds spread across upstate New York.

One of their first projects was at Lansing’s schools.

“I designed all three of the Lansing playgrounds,” Diane said. “They are all really good designs but were hard to build. Our son was our official playground tester. He was 8 years old when we started the company. We got him a card with his title on it.”

The firm has also planned playgrounds in Ludlowville Park, at the Groton, Trumansburg and Dryden schools, in many of the local state parks, and in the Ithaca city parks, including the new school-age playground at Stewart Park.
Over the years, they’ve refined their process for planning and design.

“You go meet with them in person,” Steve said. “You walk the site and talk in detail about their needs. Who is it for? Is it for school recess? A park? A daycare? A church? Apartments? What are the ages? Are there special needs? You look at the site – what kind of access? Drainage? Topography? What is their budget? We try our best to create the best playground we can to meet their needs, fit the site and fit the budget. You know when you’ve hit the mark with the design because you get big smiles from everyone around the table.”

Playgrounds range from $20,000 to $500,000, services and equipment included, according to Diane.

“A $500,000 playground will be very large with lots of inclusive and accessible equipment, a destination playground versus a neighborhood playground,” Diane said.

While good design is timeless, design technology has changed in the past two decades.

“When we first started out, we would decide on a color that fit with our set of colored pencils,” Steve said. “We’d shade in the drawings by hand. Then, we moved to a crude 3-D design. Then, it got really interesting.”

Diane said they could put site information and people into computer renderings and show the playground from multiple angles.

“The latest, which we just got last week, are virtual reality goggles,” Diane said.

At the same time, the playgrounds themselves changed.

“Old playgrounds are all independent pieces - a slide here, a swingset there, with grass in between,” Steve said. “In the 1970s, there was a revolution in ‘connected play.’ The slide connected to the bridge connected with a climber. There are four posts and a deck with things to do on the sides. Now, we are using nets, belting, things that swing and move - less static and more motion. We do a playground now that doesn’t have a single deck.”

There has been a real change in children’s abilities between 1990 and 2000, Diane said.

“Kids no longer have the upper body strength,” Diane said.

Now, the two are designing full-body climbing that uses hands and feet together, Steve said.

“There is a lot more ‘motor planning’ on a flexible net with six kids on it that is moving in unpredictable ways,” Steve said.

Parkitect’s focus is on specialty inclusive playgrounds.

“Designing a playground for kids with autism is totally different than one for kids with physical disabilities or kids with visual impairments,” Steve said. “A playground for kids with visual impairments will have a lot of contracting colors and textures. It will be well-organized and intuitive. For example, if you find a curve to the left, it should continue to curve.”

St. Margaret’s is a residential hospital for kids who are so medically involved that they cannot live at home. Diane said designing playgrounds for kids like that also requires special designs.

“They might live in a wheelchair, so there are things that they can run their wheelchair over with things to do overhead,” Diane said. “There is a group structure where they can play with their siblings.”

Steve said a bad day in the playground world is still a pretty good day.

“Our clients care and they work hard to make their community a better place,” Steve said. “A child had to wear a special suit when they went outside. The child would never put on the suit. They just sat and looked out the window at the playground. It wasn’t compelling enough for the child to take the risk. We put in a new playground and the child put on the suit and went out and played and stayed out. They said ‘I’m doing this.’”

Steve and Diane have built a splash park for kids with autism, and the effect was immediate, he said.

“The water was magical,” Steve said. “One kid had never put a full sentence together before, but when he was done playing, he said, ‘It was the best day ever.’”

In Brief:

R2P Winter Showcase warms the season

Running to Places will offer a Winter Showcase featuring “a wide range of exuberant songs from some of our favorite musicals,” said R2P Artistic Director Joey Steinhagen. “When in doubt, go with bigger, faster and funnier.”
The show features “What Is This Feeling,” from Wicked, and “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Show. The high-energy number “Dancing on the Sidewalk,” from Fame, will be a tribute to R2P company alumnus DeJour Gandy, who was killed on Dec. 7. The closing number will be “Freak Flag” from Shrek.

Performances are Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. at Ithaca High School’s Kulp Auditorium, 1401 N. Cayuga St. Tickets are $17 general admission, $13 for students and seniors and $25 for Priority VIP, which includes reserved seating (best available in order of ticket purchase). Tickets are available on-line at www.runningtoplaces.org.

Night of Life fundraising event

The student-led group “Night of Life” will hold its annual fundraiser to support “Camp Good Days and Special Times” Feb. 8. The event will include “Pond Fest,” with skating, ice hockey and a bonfire from 3 to 5 p.m., and volleyball and dodgeball in the gym from 4 to 6 p.m. The day will wrap up with a senior v. faculty basketball game, with a special half-time “chuck a ball” game, from 7 to 8 p.m. Finally, Hatfield’s chicken will be available from 5 to 7 p.m.

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