Tuesday 21 April 2015

Childcare playspace design response to population density changes

With a greater development of Australian inner city areas I have noticed an increased trend to integrate childcare centres, including the playspace, within the new residential/commercial complexes, both usually above ground level. I understand that the creation of indoor playspaces may be paramount in areas of the world that experience extreme temperature variations but this is an emergent and challenging trend in Australian childcare design. Challenging and rewarding in that I have been able to work with developers and architects who are aware of the benefit of natural playspaces and are happy to consider them integral components of any new centres' design. 

"New state government figures reveal that over three times more homes were completed within the City of Sydney's boundaries during the first seven months of this financial year than in any of the 41 other Sydney councils . The City of Sydney, which covers just 26 square kilometres, is adding new homes at the rate of 100 per week. The figures underscore the growing dominance of multi-unit housing in the Sydney property market. In the first seven months of 2014-15 more than two thirds of all dwelling approvals in greater Sydney were for multi-unit developments."

The change in need is recognized by many  Sydney metropolitan councils, in particular Sydney City Council. In a 2013 Assessment it commissioned into the projected need for childcare in their LGA the report states  "There are a total 1,054 places planned across the City’s Village Groups through Development Applications (DAs) currently with the City. At the time of this study, there were four approved DAs where work has commenced on the building equating to a minimum 258 places." http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/189835/CCNA-7-Nov-2013.PDF

In recognition of the need, and acknowledging the restraints, that Councils' Developmental Control Plan (DCP) states,  "The City of Sydney has approached the challenge of site suitability in a way that responds to the unique local context. The Child Care Centres Development Control Plan (DCP) 2005, acknowledges the need to cater for the child care needs of resident and workforce populations. Recognizing the higher density and constrained land supply in the area, the DCP provides for child care facilities to be located above ground floor, particularly in the central business district and surrounding high density areas where there are large employers. The DCP allows approval for above ground child care facilities with indirect access to open space if there are no viable alternative sites. 

Many metro council's require that any indoor play areas should, " have access to sunlight, natural ventilation and views to the outdoors, have convenient access between the indoor and outdoor areas, and enable clear lines of sight to allow for staff supervision from other areas of the child care centre".

In the past few years I have designed a total of 10 -15 enclosed and semi-enclosed playspaces, half in the city of Sydney LGA. All of the centres were created in response to an increased population density, a need  for childcare from the new population centre and an inability to create traditional centres due to lack of suitable existing sites or land availability.

In the process of design collaboration, a few essential truths have emerged in respect to the success or failure of proposed centres. These are summarized below:
  1. If you're building your centre on a concrete slab, whether that be on ground level or the 5th floor, involve your landscape designer before the building is constructed. This way prior discussions can be had as to the types of play elements that will be required in the design and how details for water/electrical, access, drainage, waterproofing, soundproofing and slab structural integrity can be accommodated.
  2. Council requirements for adequate light and ventilation are important, if you don't have them then it's odds on that you won't get construction approval. It is a lot easier and cheaper to choose or design an appropriate building for a childcare centre than attempt to meet council requirements by retro-fitting it to meet these requirements.
  3. If you're going to have plants as natural elements in your playspace seek advice as to what plants will be appropriate, they need to be able to establish and grow in semi shaded to shaded areas, be non-toxic and child friendly. 
  4. Plants also require water, nourishment and maintenance. It is not enough to depend on children or a horticulturally gifted staff member to provide these services. Engage a suitably qualified horticulturalist (with an up to date Working with children check) to provide a maintenance plan and services. It shouldn't cost a lot and the benefits to your playspace environment will be pleasantly noticeable. 
  5. You can't depend on staff or children to water the plants and air conditioned environments dry out soil and plants very quickly. The solution is to invest in a sub-surface drip irrigation system set to an auto timer that can be installed during the construction phase. The system should be installed by a suitably qualified plumber or tradesman with TAFE certification and should contain a back flow prevention valve and an auto shutoff valve to prevent flooding in case the system is damaged.
  6. Whether plants are installed as natural elements or in an internal green wall they require sufficient  sunlight to photosynthesis. Plants with limited sunlight will grow slowly and will not flower or fruit. In an internal environment you can provide sufficient sunlight by positioning plants near windows, under skylights and utilizing low thermal emissivity glass. You can also utilize plant grow lights. There are a number of different types of grow lights, some specifically for types of vegetation. The lights should be chosen by a suitably qualified horticultural specialist and installed during construction by a qualified electrician.
  7. A number of centres may chose to install a green wall to increase the natural elements in a playspace. The rate of plant failure of green walls that are not designed and installed properly is high. Green walls are not a low maintenance feature. They may require both irrigation and  lighting  systems and the plants should be chosen by a suitably qualified horticulturalist and be non-toxic and child friendly. A number of Councils will also require you to submit a plant maintenance plan as part of the DA process.
  8. A number of centres are choosing to utilize artificial grass, installed over soft fall, in their playspaces. There are particular standards for grass that is to be used in an internal playspace. To be compliant to the BCA (internal floor coverings) the grass needs to meet appropriate fire resistance standards. We also specify Australian made grass, to ensure a lead free product is installed.       
Montessori Academy -Victoria Park childcare centre was designed in 2013,  Approved for construction in 2014 and built later that year. It was licensed in early 2015 and has been operating continuously since then. The Centre is on the Fifth floor of the East Village complex and overlooks South Dowling Street & the Eastern Distributor Motorway
The East Village playspace was designed to have an open ventilation system, Low-E glazing and a built-in irrigation system so the plants get all they need to keep them growing.  

The design included a large green wall to help to cool and oxygenate the playspace and plenty of opportunity to play with two sandpits, log steppers for seating and climbing, timber balance beams and slides. The design included hidden quiet areas and areas for meditation. 

The design included raised garden beds to host a number of sensory native trees, shrubs, grasses and climbers and separate raised beds to be used for growing edible herbs and veggies.

It was great to get to see the completed centre, speak to the director and take the photographs attached below.

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