Nature game | architecture now

An ambitious ideology was the basis for the design of Kākāpō Creek Kindergarten. The clients, a teacher and a child psychologist, wanted to break away from the usual institutionalized nature of early childhood centers and create a place where connections between children, teachers and the natural world are fostered.

Before that happened, however, they had to find out if it was possible to build on the low-lying site they had purchased in Mairangi Bay. With a creek flowing along its edge and tall established trees, it was a beautiful location that had enormous flood potential.

The couple brought in Phil Smith of Collingridge and Smith Architects, who initially arranged for a civil engineer to assess the viability of the site. The resulting report recommended a building raised 1.5m above the lowest level of the site. Along with the specifics of the client brief, this need to elevate the building inspired its unusual shape, Smith explains.

“Their philosophy for this building was for all four classrooms to be connected, both physically and with a sense of transparency. They also wanted the kids to stay together the whole time they’re there with the same teacher, rather than moving them from class to class as they grow. From a pedagogical point of view, it’s quite different from our usual brief. This became a driving force for the design.

The center is designed to be malleable, with the possibility of being modified to become a restaurant in the future. Picture:

Mark Scowen

The U-shaped building with a courtyard in its center is reminiscent of the circular Fuji kindergarten in Japan. Through faceted sliding doors that open to the Kākāpō Creek courtyard, strong connections are created between indoor and outdoor spaces, while extensive glazing inspires learning about the natural surroundings. The building also acts as a screen, preventing sound from passing through to nearby residential areas, a problem when the building is raised above the level of most fences.

The building opens towards a part of the land which joins the corner of the street. Within this space, a sunken outdoor play area has been created, positioned here to eliminate any noise concerns, which are engulfed by street activity. The playground is creatively designed, with a hobbit house and tunnel dug under the entrance bridge and a slide and climbing wall providing entry and exit points from above.

The central courtyard offers an additional and inspiring place to play in view of the classrooms. Raised on a terrace and open to the air, it’s a particularly interesting place to observe when it’s raining, Smith says.

“The circular roof gutter has rain chains that catch water. It splashes into pots on the deck, then descends into channels and through a rock and gravel filtration system into the stream. it goes back into the stream like it would have naturally, but we cleaned it up. The green roof also cleans the water and removes heavy metals and impurities,” Smith explains.

With windows and doors on all sides, the center benefits from natural ventilation and lighting, reducing both running and carbon costs. It also allows the scenery to take center stage, with the whispering steam and swaying trees beyond the windows providing color and texture, as well as a soothing atmosphere for children.

Recycled materials from the existing house on the site were used to create the playground, furthering the green credentials of the project. Inside, the classrooms are designed using a clean palette of neutrals and sustainable woods, allowing children to add their own ‘color’.

“My philosophy for most of the centers we do is that they are a backdrop, to enhance the site around them.” said Smith. “Loads of color can provide too much stimulation. Children with learning disabilities are proven to be more difficult to cope and concentrate. We have placed minimal amounts of display boards at certain places, positioned like picture frames. It’s methodical and well presented, instead of chaotic visual chaos.

The roof is planted with grasses that change color with the seasons. Picture:

Mark Scowen

The parking lot, rather than being a concrete afterthought, follows the lines of the creek and is designed to be part of the landscaping, with a curved access road wrapped around the ends of the building.

For Smith, having a complex brief and a challenging site gave him a clear position from which to design. “We have been designing nurseries for 16 years now and we generally have relatively free scope, apart from stipulations regarding the number of children and the size of places. Very few are as specific as this in their briefing, but having constraints can be inspirational.

The result is indeed an inspiring place for children to spend their time there, with the building adding value to the surrounding neighborhood and assimilating into the natural environment.

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