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There’s a strong demand for childcare in Melbourne though the industry can often be more difficult than it first seems. Developers are often tackling difficult sites where residential developments don’t stack up, by opting to build a childcare centre instead. This often means childcare centres are located on difficult sites with a plethora of design constraints that need to be responded to in order to ensure that the facility will foster a safe and enjoyable environment for children to learn in.

Above:  The street façade is softened by the elevated outdoor play spaces

Located on a challenging, steep site, the Bundoora Childcare Centre is a typical development in this sense. The centre is within a larger urban development precinct that saw an increase in the assessed demand for childcare in the area. The steep site meant that the development had to be split over two levels. In the lower section of the property, there’s a heritage cottage surrounded by ground level outdoor play space. The new two storey building is located in the higher section of the site. One of the essential design issues faced at the beginning of the design process was finding the most effective way to refurbish the heritage cottage with minimal intervention to allow it to be re-purposed into an interesting child care space. The priority was to have the cottage relate to the outside while also linking to the new, more program intense new building.

Above: The existing heritage cottage surrounded by outdoor play space

For this childcare project, we were engaged by the developer who is a large property trust that specialises in childcare. We also worked closely with the operator to ensure the centre was aligned with their specific facility requirements. The architectural proposal and resulting building cost had to reflect the long-term rental agreement that the developer and operator agreed to. This can often prove difficult, especially on difficult sites. Architectural skill is paramount to find ways to maximise the number of children that can be accommodated, make the building as efficient and therefore as cheap as possible, while also ensuring that it’s the best design outcome for the children who are going to be attending the centre.

Creating engaging outdoor play spaces

The number of children that the development deal was based on, meant that a design issue arose around how to provide adequately sized, integrated and varied outdoor environments. Elevated outdoor play spaces were identified as a necessity though we wanted to ensure that these spaces moved away from the feel of verandahs hemmed in by high glass balustrades. A strong characteristic of the design became the tensioned mesh that runs right around the elevated outdoor areas. The design is first and foremost about the children and mesh is a more tactile, interesting and engaging surface. It also allows the children to be safe while prioritising more connection to the elements and surrounding views.

Above: A child looks down to the playground below

It was important to provide spaces that were adaptable, so they can be changed to house a range of different activities while also responding to the variation in seasonal and day to day weather conditions. The mesh creates a blending of playground and building. It becomes a moving and changing facet of the building experienced not only from within but from beyond. The mesh also allows for interaction between the raised outdoor spaces and the ground level outdoor space surrounding the cottage.

Above: The mesh allows the otudoor play spaces to feel expansive and connected to the surroundings.

The aesthetic

We prioritised making the internal spaces flexible rather than too contrived or rectilinear. This allowed the operator and their staff to change the internal environment to suit different play activities expanding the possibilities of how the one room can be utilised and in turn extending the lifespan of the built space.

Above: A typical indoor play space with plenty of space, flexibility and connection to outdoors.

The palette of the project prioritised longevity and flexibility. We used colour in a restrained way, most often utilising colour to act as visual identifiers. The doors to activity rooms are painted a deep blue while strong toned tiles distinguish the kitchen as well as the children’s bathrooms. The rest of the colour can be infused into the spaces through the play equipment and art made by the children.

Above: The simple palette applied to circulation spaces

We feel that the architecture doesn’t have to compete with the range of elements and activities within a children’s learning space. It can instead set the backdrop for the people who are taking care of the children providing a changeable environment and avoiding creating an over stimulating space. When considering outdoor play areas, we believe that spaces that allow for active, cognitive and dramatic play don’t need to be too prescriptive. We work with landscape architects to create outdoor areas that have a natural aesthetic that allow children possibilities to explore, be challenged and find new, imaginative ways to use the elements they’re provided. A few logs can be balancing beams one moment and form a story circle the next.

Spaces that foster healthy eating and food education

A design feature that the operator prioritised, was having the kitchen and a healthy eating program as an integral part of the children’s daily activities. We positioned the kitchen next to the entry to the centre. Surrounded by glass, the chef is visible and everyone can enjoy the smells of the food being prepared. The kitchen is connected to a dining area and courtyard with a kitchen garden. It was great to work with an operator that saw healthy eating and food education as a fundamental element to the centres functioning.

Above: The kitchen as viewed from the main entry and reception area.

Sustainability

A range of sustainable elements were incorporated into the project. A 60,000 litre underground water tank helps to effectively process stormwater while being utilised for the flushing of toilets and garden irrigation. PV cells on the roof generate electricity while the whole building is very well insulated which decreases the demand on heating and cooling requirements. The buildings orientation allows an adequate amount of north sun into the building while the hot western sun is managed through the introduction of motorised pergolas. The building really becomes an organism that can be adjusted to suit the different weather conditions the children and carers find themselves in.

Overall, the main sustainable measure undertaken in this project was the adaptive reuse of old building stock. We believe it’s a responsible, sustainable and considered design approach to adapt an existing building so that it can have a new life with a different use. In this case, the approach was to retain the heritage cottage externally only adjusting things where the new use ultimately forced it. Internally, we avoided knocking out walls to make bigger areas, instead creating openings through walls. This created spaces that retained the feel of an old home and resulted in a feel that is more homely and in turn more identifiable for children.

Above: A play space within the heritage cottage.

Adaptive reuse of old building stock

The adaptive re-use of buildings must be the way forward environmentally. Our practice specialises in this, particularly for childcare facilities. When considering the feel of the spaces that can be created by re-using old homes, it can often be an opportunity rather than a constraint. We can assist to identify the suitability of a property through an initial feasibility assessment. We help advise on aspects of the whole development process engaging childcare and demographic experts who can outline whether a particular area has a demand for more childcare. We intimately understand the regulations and requirements of childcare which are applied to then ascertain the possible child yield of the property in question.

A feasibility study can assist a potential developer to make an informed decision through the identification of town planning constraints along with normal architectural issues (including budget). The next step would be to develop the test schematic plan provided as a part of the feasibility study into a more resolved sketch design that sees the progression of how the building, new and old will work.

Clearly the need for childcare is continuing to expand. We believe the imperative is about designing for the children, as the childcare centre is their first experiential learning place on their long learning journey through school. Our task is to merge the needs of the children and all members involved in the development to create a great facility.

 Above: The outdoor play space surrounding the heritage cottage.

What is Engineered Timber?
Engineered timber is a whole industry of structural timber manufactured for a variety of purposes. Engineered timber comes in many forms from prefabricated stud walls, to flat plate floors and walls, cassette systems, CLT (cross laminated timber), LVL (laminated veneer lumber) beams, as well as a variety of other composite systems. The essential aspect is that it is part of a prefabrication process.

Can you explain some of these systems in detail?
Flat plate systems include CLT (cross laminated timber), which are timber planks stacked perpendicular, one on top of the other and held in place by glue. This forms a structural plate from multiple horizontally spanning layers. The system can be used to form walls and floors and a whole building can then be stacked up like a house of cards, which means very quick construction times. The other type of flat plate engineered timber is LVL (laminated veneer lumber) which uses plywood running in cross directions to build up thickness. Flat plate systems replace concrete slabs and in walls can replace load bearing precast concrete or blockwork.

1:(L) CLT (Cross laminated Timber) section. 2:(R) A CLT building under construction 

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