Much like the fairytale elves who repaired scores of shoes while the cobbler slept, several volunteers toiled relentlessly through the night of Sept. 7, transforming one of Orange County, Calif.'s premier al fresco shopping centers into a childhood dream come true.

PROJECT PLAYHOUSE: Orange County builder teams spent the past three months crafting miniature homes to be auctioned off Oct. 13, with proceeds benefiting HomeAid. Photo: Courtesy Homeaid Orange County The following morning, thousands of children and their families would burst onto the scene, setting eyes on a village of miniature masterpieces nestled among the mall's walkways. Spanning five weeks, estimates place the number of Project Playhouse Orange County attendees in excess of 3 million each year.

For the 16th consecutive year, HomeAid Orange County's Project Playhouse returns to Fashion Island. The largest event of its kind in the country, what began in 1991 as a local charity to raise funds for HomeAid's Shelter Development Program, which renovates and builds homeless shelters throughout Orange County, has since spread to 11 locations nationwide.

These pint-size palaces feature such first-class amenities as entertainment systems, built-in refrigerators, computers, fireplaces, and more. From William Lyon Homes' The Sketch Pad–which boasts an abundance of art supplies and original pieces from Orange County's renowned Laguna Beach Artist Colony–and Wahoo's Xtreme Snow Shack–with portable snowboard and ski slope training equipment–courtesy of Pulte Homes, Urban Arena, and Wahoo's Fish Taco restaurants, to K. Hovnanian's Na Hale Aloha or "House of Aloha"–which includes two roundtrip tickets to Hawaii via Aloha Air–this is one event that is not to be missed.

A Homeaid Home Run

Home building heavy-hitter Taylor Woodrow once again delivered a top-notch baseball themed entry in conjunction with the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim. The builder originally developed its Angels' playhouse concept three years ago, creating the first incarnation without a formal involvement from the local ball club. The team loved it and has enthusiastically jumped on the HomeAid bandwagon.

"It brought us a lot of media coverage, a lot of recognition, and a great deal of pride for our team," says Taylor Woodrow marketing director Arianna Barrios.

The builder has leveraged its charitable activities as a marketing marvel, hosting trade "thank you" days at Angels Stadium and purchasing game tickets at partner price for sales office give-aways.

While the increased visibility is a much-welcomed perk, Barrios notes, "At the end of the day, it all helps a very worthy charity in our industry."

Tea Time

That enthusiasm is shared across the board–both within the trade and by the public at large. Contributing to such a significant cause can also work wonders when it comes to fostering a sense of community.

MINI MODEL HOMES: With average production values ranging from $35,000 to $50,000, these playhouses rival their "grown up" counterparts, inside and out. Photo: Courtesy Homeaid Orange County "It's really helped get the team together, especially the younger people," says KTGY Group principal Brian Muehlbauer. "They are really excited about doing the build."

And it's no wonder why. Every year, Muehlbauer's team members develop an imaginative design idea and accompanying vignette to present to the group, which then votes on its collective favorite. This year's winner: a Japanese teahouse design from Susan Huang, featuring large overhangs, sliding shoji screens, a spacious teak deck, and traditional Japanese landscaping complete with koi pond.

For the following three months, KTGY employees and interns worked diligently to bring that vision to life. Muehlbauer notes that this fun, team activity has had a positive effect on office morale–particularly in today's harsh environment. "It's a distraction from their daily chores," he says.

High School Hard Work

Perhaps this year's most notable playhouse comes from the Building Industry Technology Academy (BITA). An educational outreach of the Building Industry Association of Southern California's Orange County chapter (BIA/OC), BITA provides students at four participating area high schools with the ability to learn the trades of home building from start to finish. One of BITA's annual projects was to build a playhouse; this year marks the logical extension of that project to align itself with Project Playhouse, as students from Katella High School in Anaheim collaborated with BIA counterparts to complete LuLu's Diner.

"Not only is it the first student-built house, it's the first green-certified house in Project Playhouse history," says BIA/OC communications manager Sarah Bruckner.

With LED lighting, environmentally sound building materials, and solar panels, LuLu's Diner shows a lighter side of green, incorporating many of the fun high-tech features found in other playhouses, including a Sony PlayStation 2, flatscreen television, and iPod docking station.

Bruckner points to Project Playhouse as everyone's favorite BITA project to date–and the passion shows. "[The students] are amazed at how much they got done," she adds. "Their playhouse is sitting on a lot with Shea and KB Home, and they were able to do the same caliber of work."

That effort and quality did not go unnoticed, according to Bruckner, as LuLu's Diner received this year's Spirit Award, Imagination Award, Rainbow Award, and Grand Award.

"The students were there [at Fashion Island] showing the house to their parents; it's so cool," Bruckner says. "I saw it from beginning to start, and I can't even imagine how much work they put into it."

Photo: Courtesy Homeaid Orange County The Bottom Line

While participating in charities through hands-on involvement is a worthy endeavor in and of itself, Barrios acknowledges that it must make sense from a business perspective–particularly in a down market.

"Finding opportunities to do good in the community that don't take us out of what we do on a day-to-day basis is a strong selling point," she says. "At the end of the day, we're running a business."

To that end, Taylor Woodrow stresses the involvement of its marketing department, ensuring that its charitable giving dovetails with its business needs and boosts the bottom line. Thanks to HomeAid's efforts to work with and help builders, that mission has been easy to achieve.

"As a homegrown charity within the industry, HomeAid understands what the needs are," she says. "You really can't put a dollar figure on that."

Nor can one place a price on the furthering of HomeAid's mission to support the area's transitionally homeless. While Project Playhouse is a great way for builders to take time out from the daily grind and give back to the community, it also serves as a reminder of the universal desire to achieve a storybook happy ending.

Talent Meets Teamwork

As with any project worth undertaking, the construction of a dream home–even on a miniature scale–begins with the formation of a partnership, whether of ideas or individuals. Meet the builder teams who gracefully combined practical skill with artistic vision for this year's Project Playhouse:

  • Building Industry Technology Academy (BITA)
  • K. Hovnanian Homes & Aloha Airlines
  • KTGY Group & Finton Associates
  • Pardee Homes & Build-A-Bear Workshop
  • Pulte Homes, Urban Arena, & Wahoo's
  • Shea Homes
  • Taylor Woodrow Homes & Angels'
  • Baseball Foundation
  • University of California, Irvine
  • William Lyon Homes
  • WindStar Communities & The Anaheim Ducks

For more information on Project Playhouse, visit

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.