Architect: Smith Architects
The first five years of a human’s life is when the foundations for behaviour, health and learning throughout life are laid down. A child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time, so it’s crucial that the environment that pre-schoolers spend time is in healthy, encourages imagination and creativity, and is highly supportive for development.
The New Shoots Children’s Centre is a long, low-slung building in Whenuapai, which is a growing residential development north-west of Auckland. It is one of the latest childcare projects that architectural practice Collingridge and Smith has designed.
UK-born director Phil Smith has an impressive background working on a range of ground-breaking, low-energy high school projects in the United Kingdom that were the first of their kind.
Phil moved to New Zealand in 2005 and, although there was a lack of the same types of education projects, he says, “I managed to find a weird little niche in childcare, where people wanted something sustainable and quirky. I’ve now designed over 80 childcare centres in New Zealand, and we are currently working on projects in Melbourne, the UK and Abu Dhabi, which is very exciting.”
New Shoots is a group of sustainable, architecturally designed early childhood centres located across the upper North Island. Owner and director Michelle Pratt, who is somewhat of a powerhouse in the early childhood sector, commissioned Collingridge and Smith to design their very first project in New Zealand. Approximately 12 years later, the architects are still working closely with New Shoots.
The design philosophies that both Collingridge and Smith and New Shoots believe in are similar – in particular, that children’s centres need to have plenty of daylight, be constructed with healthy, low-VOC materials and be naturally well ventilated. Light, colour, space and beauty are essential ingredients.
“For us, those green building philosophies extend across all buildings that people spend a lot of time in. Some children can be in these centres for up to 11 hours a day, even longer than their parents would be at work, so we believe that they need to be special, healthy buildings that feel good to be in,” remarks Phil.
The architect feels so strongly about the topic of early childhood internal environment quality that the practice is currently undertaking their own research on the subject. “There are many early childhood centres out there that are not designed well. The ages of zero to five are when you’ll make the most impact on a human’s life, so they’re really important to get right!”
It’s easy to see that the Whenuapai centre encourages imagination, play and fun, while being healthy and safe. Without a strict brief to follow, Phil says that the narrow site lent itself easily to the idea of a structured walkway placed along the length of the building.
“We wanted to create something playful and interactive for the children – something a little different – so we’ve designed a twisted pergola form made of thick glulam pine beams that the children can hide behind and play ‘hide and seek’.”
The simple one-storey building’s exterior materials have been played down to create a backdrop for the striking pergola beams and are a simple mix of cedar cladding and aluminium joinery. Floor-to-ceiling glazing allows much-needed daylight to penetrate deep into the interior and, in summer, the whole building can be opened up to keep spaces fresh and cool.
Inside, the bespoke spaces were designed by consultant Chloe Forsman, who worked for Collingridge and Smith for several years but now focuses mainly on the interior design for the New Shoots centres, each of which have common themes that run through them yet are completely tailor made for the individual building.
These colourful, interesting spaces are designed around the New Shoots pedagogy and what the organisation believes is right for children at different ages to best help them grow and learn.
And, what would be of a children’s space without outdoor fun and exercise in the fresh air? Natural Habitats designed the exterior spaces for the Whenuapai project, and the company often collaborates with the architects on many projects.
Phil says, “The landscaping is designed to integrate with the building and, as with all our centres, we’ve chosen mainly natural materials and surfaces, with a reasonable amount of planting, sandpits and natural grass.”
Children can splash in the water, explore in the grass or hide behind the large, natural pine posts – it is the ideal environment to encourage imagination, exercise and play. If more early childhood centres could offer such a creative, interactive and healthy environment, we would no doubt see the widespread benefits across our communities.