Creating Safe and Challenging Ways to Play

Playgrounds Unlimited
Written by William Young

The business that is Playgrounds Unlimited officially incorporated in 1996, but the motivation behind it took shape a bit before that. The idea sprang from Co-Owner and President Joe Mendes, who wanted to build his son a playground to celebrate his first birthday. This intention eventually spun into him carving out a niche in the construction industry and moving into playground construction full-time, with two partners to help his new venture get started.

Co-Owner and Chief Financial Officer Mike Altieri joined the project in its first year after his graduation from college, when the business found initial success through positive word-of-mouth from its custom residential playground projects. The company is now nearing its third decade of specializing in playground construction in Northern California.

Playgrounds Unlimited has made its name from countless successful projects across the West Coast. Some of these include playgrounds for the Oakland Zoo and for Heather Farms Park in Walnut Creek, as well as Imagine Playground at Dublin Sports Grounds in Dublin, California, which now features an all-inclusive playground. The company also recently completed seven parks for the city of San Jose.

In the company’s early days, the commercial playground construction market was coveted. In that market, a contractor builds for well-known playground manufacturers like Burke Playgrounds, Little Tikes Commercial, Miracle Playsystems, or Playworld Systems. Sales representatives for these brands need contractors to build the playgrounds once manufacturers secure a deal to do so. Playgrounds Unlimited’s clear understanding of client needs, unique installation techniques, and skilled employees enabled the company to make inroads with such manufacturers for projects, which quickly became the bread-and-butter of its operations.

The company has expanded its services to constructing playgrounds for schools, parks, churches, municipalities, and others. It has moved further into additional ventures like playground removal and site preparation, prefabricated buildings and sun shelters, water play systems, earthwork and drainage, and more. The company’s considerable résumé of services has allowed it to become a turnkey, end-to-end contractor. “If you show us a play area or an empty field,” Altieri says, “we can build it for you, start to finish.”

Driven by playground manufacturers and park administrators, safety standards, guidelines, and training have changed over the years, and Altieri notes the entire industry has evolved significantly since the company began three decades ago. Playgrounds in past decades were more of a free-for-all, comparatively speaking, with minimal barriers and more opportunity for kids to fall from a play structure. It was in the 2000s when structures began to shift toward a greater emphasis on user safety. Today, playgrounds are tied to safety in both design and construction.

Playgrounds underwent a “modular phase” not long after safety standards were heightened, and structures became simpler as a result, with more basic slides and play elements, a change that was great for installers but not as well-received by educators and the families and children using them. As such, challenging and complex playgrounds are coming back into fashion, with creative elements such as net play, upper body activities, and interactive elements that can be added without sacrificing safety.

Within playground construction, organizations like the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) create and maintain strict safety standards to prevent serious injuries. These guidelines then become the new benchmarks for the company to measure its structures against, giving it the chance to flex its ability to innovate and market new approaches and a challenge to find new and better ways to build. One such approach by Playgrounds Unlimited is the development of its own brand of Poured Rubber Safety Surfacing, “SAFEPOUR”.

SAFEPOUR is a safe, durable, and low-maintenance poured-in-place rubber surfacing system designed to meet and exceed industry safety and performance standards. Rubber safety surfacing, such as SAFEPOUR, is poured beneath a playground or a water park area to provide fall protection and increase accessibility. Altieri says while any business can offer a great product, if installation is done incorrectly, it creates nothing but problems. “We utilize systematic installation techniques to ensure SAFEPOUR is installed for maximum effectiveness. We don’t just want to sell our clients on a brand or name; we want to know the product works and it works correctly.”

This approach is crucial as the playground industry continues to innovate in developing and constructing ever-taller playgrounds and more complex play elements, such as suspension bridges, ropes, climbing walls, and natural climbing components and obstacles. Companies like Playgrounds Unlimited must develop innovative building techniques that are safe for builders and create structures that are safe for participants. As such, design and development have roared back into play, as creative designs that previously were only seen in amusement parks are coming alive on playgrounds across the industry. Now, even school and community areas are seeing sophisticated playgrounds with greater play value for their users.

In addition to safety, technical design, and complex play, other emerging themes on today’s playgrounds include accessibility as manufacturers look to make “all-inclusive” environments that allow for users of every ability level to access and enjoy playground activities safely. Social media is also an evolving aspect of the playground industry as it provides a new, digital format of spreading news and reviews by word-of-mouth and an immediate way for families to discover and share new playground areas with each other.

Playgrounds Unlimited sets high expectations for itself and feels the responsibility to keep up with these evolving trends and continue to develop as a builder. In that vein, speed is not always the company’s priority. Keeping business operations well-paced allows for greater focus on project construction and installation and how it can affect clients. Management is also quick to cite the employees as a key reason for the company’s success. Every team, both in the office and in the field, works well with one another and creates a positive work environment.

The company’s employees take great pride in their work and what they do. They are experienced problem-solvers, understand the product, and want to engage with clients and leave them feeling good about both the completed project and the relationship; they want to deliver the best product possible. As a result, Playgrounds Unlimited has kept many of its clients on repeat through this philosophy as well as through the efforts of those valuable people working behind the scenes.

Altieri says the best projects are often those done for school districts or private schools because the students watch the playground installation with anticipation and are eager to have a new play structure to explore. “That’s really who our client is: the children who use it,” he says. Their smiling faces are never far from his mind as Playgrounds Unlimited sets out on another project to “Build Play, the Right Way!” and to continue to build its SAFEPOUR brand—“Rubber Surfacing Done, the Safe Way!”

He says that it has not seemed like 28 years of business but, in that time, Playgrounds Unlimited has gone from building routine playgrounds to constructing elaborate structures that are stimulating and challenging for both builders and participants. This growing innovation drives the company to stay its course while learning new construction techniques to increase safety and efficiency and provide clients with the highest quality projects and service. The company intends to stay right where it is as an industry leader in playground construction and surfacing installation.



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