Let the Games Begin
Susan Welsh -- Interior Design, 7/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Anthony Hoete knows a thing or two about the pressures on working parents. The founding partner of WHAT_Architecture steps off the Eurostar in London, returning from a project in France—with his 2-year-old son, Maui, in tow. "His mother had meetings this week," Hoete explains, while Maui, pacifier in mouth, clings to his father. "The client said it would be all right to bring him along."
Hoete thus approached the design of the Rooftop Nursery, a day-care center in East London, with a degree of commitment other architects might lack. The ground-up project, part of a government program to help mothers get back to work, was allotted a budget of about $600,000, which also had to cover the purchase of land. Even in an area where property prices are relatively low, the figure was, in Hoete's words, "ridiculously small"—especially compared to London's recent big-ticket educational projects by Alsop Design and Richard Rogers Partnership.
On a 2,900-square-foot plot, Hoete ingeniously maximized the use of space, with the nursery's sloping profile as one element in a harmonious landscape. The gap between the front of the building and a security fence is sheltered by a glazed canopy. (Great for parking strollers.) At the side of the building, a patio garden will, in time, be shaded by vines growing on cables overhead.
Of course, as the nursery's name suggests, the most singular way in which Hoete saved space was to put a play area on the roof. Given tough safety requirements, he didn't stint on materials. Spongy green granulated EPDM synthetic rubber, for example, covers the roof surface. When EPDM is used for ordinary playgrounds, water drains through, into the soil. To control drainage here, Hoete gave the roof a slight angle and installed an underlayer of the same geo-textile membrane that landscapers use, so water sluices off.
The roof left little money for the nursery's interior. "We hit the phones and hustled like hell," Hoete says. It helped that, as he points out, a nursery ought to be no-nonsense: "Sophisticated detailing is not appropriate in an environment where it has to take a beating." Interior walls are unpainted concrete block, and shelving is untreated plywood. For windows, he built frames of painted MDF.
Then there are the aesthetic arguments for simplicity. "Some toys architecture can't compete with," he says, picking up a colorful mini vacuum.
Bright accents provide just the right amount of pizzazz. The pink of the linoleum floor was sampled from a dress worn by manager Hafiza Patel's daughter. As for the lively greens on the exterior and the play roof's walls, Hoete digitally matched a number of plants growing nearby, then asked staff to choose favorites.
U.K. government regulations require a specific amount of space per child, according to age. Thus requirements shift as children grow and class sizes change. Nimbly addressing this dilemma, Hoete came up with a system of sliding panels set at varying angles—separating babies from older children or one activity from another. For the panel material, he splurged on translucent honeycomb plastic.
The Rooftop Nursery was Hoete's first educational job in the U.K., and its inspired him to take the same ideas further. For an upcoming project sponsored by Lego, he plans to use the blocks in preliminary meetings to help parents and staffers express ideas about space. He even hopes to build the nursery from larger-than-life Lego blocks. The thing about nurseries is that you can have a lot of fun," he says. "Hopefully that will manifest itself in the building, so the kids have fun, too.