Educational addition will appeal to kids of all ages

UT Gardens Treehouse Competition

Sanders Pace Architecture submitted the award-winning design for the UT Gardens, Knoxville, treehouse. Their concept design entitled, “Nest” won the attention of the judges. Shown in the photo are (l-r) Derrick Stowell, UT Gardens education coordinator; Gene Burr, retired architect and AIA member; Susan Hamilton, director of the UT Gardens; Michael Davis, AIA, LEED AP, and Lauren Mullane, AIAS, of Sanders Pace Architecture; and James Newburn, curator of the UT Gardens, Knoxville. Photo courtesy UTIA. Download photo
Image of rendering.


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – They’ve been a fixture of nearly everyone’s childhood, a place where one could while away the hours and let the imagination run wild. Through a child’s eyes, it could be a clubhouse, a spacecraft or even a pirate ship sailing the seas in search of treasure. What is this magical place? Why, it’s a treehouse, of course, and what better place to have one than the UT Gardens.
Recently, designs were sought to build a treehouse that will enhance children’s educational programming in the beautiful surroundings of the UT Gardens. Six entries were received from local architecture and landscape firms. A design jury was chosen, including representatives of the East Tennessee Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the competition was on!
A six-member design jury made up of representatives from the UT Gardens, local architecture firms and UT faculty spent an afternoon pouring over designs and renderings. Throughout the process, the judges needed to keep in mind the following criteria:
- Response to the theme of the Children’s Nature Discovery Garden-the elements of nature.
- Appropriateness of the design to the setting.
- Consistency of the proposal with program requirements.
- Completeness of the design presentation.
- General quality, safety and aesthetic appeal of the design solution.
After spending much of the afternoon in deliberation, the jury made its choices for first, second and third place. While each entry had a number of positive attributes, three entries met the criteria across the board.
“It was a difficult having to choose from such a wonderful group of entries,” said Susan Hamilton, UT Gardens director. “Each entry had its own unique charm, but there was one particular entry that stood out with each member of the jury.”
The award for the winning design went to Sanders Pace Architecture for their concept design entitled, “Nest.” Combining a strong symbolic representation of the East Tennessee terrain, extensive use of natural materials, accommodation of spontaneous natural play activates and formal programming.
Comments from members of the design jury were overwhelmingly positive. “The solution allows you to be close enough to get the feel of being in the trees but stays out of the root zone,” said another member of the design jury. “In addition, we liked the use of the berm doubling as an amphitheater.”
The second-place prize went to the firm "curb and Daniel Jones" for a design that incorporated discovery niches as well as a compelling use of materials. “This design respects the trees by not being too close and the demarcation of existing elements is clearly intentional,” according to comments from the design jury.
Taking third-place was a design by McCarty Holsaple McCarty with their interactive solution to inward and outward spaces, along with panoramic views from the treehouse. “The opportunity for play under the ramp is a bonus and the extra platform space for exploration is a definite asset,” said a member of the design jury.
In recognition of the creativity of the other entries, the jury also awarded an Honorable Mention to Carol R. Johnson and Associates. Commendations were awarded to the Lewis Group and Smee & Busby Architects.
“Having this competition raised the level of expectation,” said Gene Burr. “An exciting solution here can make a world of difference in the level of interest from the public and the kids.” Burr is a retired architect who served as the coordinator for the design competition. “I’m just really pleased that the design community saw this as an exciting challenge,” he said. “That’s a positive testament to the local architects and their understanding of the opportunity that was presented.”
“This treehouse design will be such an exciting addition to our Children’s Discovery Garden,” said Hamilton. “Can you imagine all of the educational adventures the kids are going to have? I can’t wait to see the impact it’s going to make.”
The treehouse is expected to be completed in 2014. A contractor to help underwrite construction costs is currently being sought for the project. Plans are already underway for new and exciting children’s educational programming.
Located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville, the UT Gardens system includes plant collections that together serve as Tennessee’s official botanical garden. The gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. They deliver research discoveries, promote hands-on learning and provide educational opportunities for their communities. From Master Gardeners to kindergartners, there’s room for everyone to learn and contribute. For more information, visit
Dr. Sue Hamilton, director, UT Gardens, 865-974-7324,
James Newburn, assistant director and curator, UT Gardens, 865-974-7256,

Doug Edlund, UTIA Marketing and Communications, 865-974-7141,