Monster City Studios (MCS) sounds like a movie production company. And for good reason. The five-year-old, California-based design and fabrication firm builds “themed environments” for amusement parks, movie sets, and interactive museums. They work out of a massive Fresno workshop and are contracted by such companies as Disney and Dreamworks. But when they’re not creating fantasy worlds for the next blockbuster, the 15-person team heads from backlot to backyard where they construct fantastical treehouses and playsets that seem torn from the pages of fairytales.
“My background is model railroad building,” says James A. Powell, Vice President of Design for MCS. “One day I made something kind of cartoony, and somebody said you need to make this into a dog house. So I did, and they loved it. And then people said you need to make a playhouse. And eventually, it just got bigger and bigger.”
As in, “$70,000 treehouses” bigger. A quick scan of Monster’s Etsy page shows five models for sale, from the modest seven-foot-tall Huck’s Hideout Playhouse and a Storybook Cottage (both of which cost $9,750), to a $68,000 Victorian that stands 14-feet-tall in an artificial tree and a $75,000 model that looks like it’s straight off the set of the Hobbit.
MCS doesn’t really push the houses much ⏤ not surprising considering the price ⏤ so the few orders they do receive from Etsy and Pinterest are relegated mostly to side work. They sell about one or two a year and have, to date, made the dreams of probably 20 or so kids come true. Many of them from the Middle East, which is, again, not surprising.
Designed in a 3D program called ZBrush and built of steel, wood, and foam, each house (at least the bigger ones) takes a crew of eight about a month to construct. “We take big blocks of foam, load them in the machine, and the machine actually carves out the parts,” says Powell, explaining the post-design process. “Then we take the parts, glue them together, and hard coat them with the same material used in the lining of truck beds called polyurea.” Fun fact: Cover a piece of soft styrofoam with polyurea and it literally becomes bomb proof. “Mythbusters did an episode a couple of years ago where they took plywood and brick walls and coated it with the exact same stuff,” adds Powell. “And then they set C4 off. It’s pretty strong.”
The bombproof houses aren’t falling over anytime soon, either. “The Victorian is built on a two-inch tube steel frame,” says Powell, “and probably weighs a good 10,000 pounds.” Interiors are custom made but often pretty basic ⏤ striped wallpaper, wood, or basic white paint, for example. One of the houses they sold in Dubai, however, did include a couple of sinks. There was a sandbox at the bottom and the parents wanted the kids to be able to rinse off. Smart.
Now the big question, how the hell are you getting that 10,000-pound playhouse home and set up? They’re actually built in pieces so it’s easy to transport. “It comes with wall pieces, roof sections, and then the tree and branches,” Powell says of one the treehouses. “There are 20 large parts and, like LEGOs, you stack them all together, bolt the thing down, and it’s ready to go.” It takes between two days to a week to assemble, and the MCS crew will even fly out/sleep on your couch (kidding) to ensure it’s all snapped together properly. Otherwise, they’ll help find qualified local contractors in the area to do it for you. Depending on locations, shipping can run between $800 and $3,000.
For customers who’d rather not spoil their kids, but don’t have a problem doting on their dachaund, MCS also builds custom $10,000 pet houses that look like log cabins and New York City brownstones. They’ve also done an epic, as in giant 120-foot-by-60-foot, Indiana Jones-themed man cave presumably for the world’s biggest Temple of Doom fan. Assuming your Modern Space Shed isn’t cutting it these days, they can do it again for just a couple of hundred grand. “If somebody calls with an idea, we’ll bring it to life,” says Powell, “We’ll make anything.”