SEEN AND HEARD:childcare facilities in the workplace

11 July 2018

As childcare facilities become more prevalent in the contemporary workplace, serious money is being invested into designing spaces for young users. Abi Millar speaks to Daniel Sundlin of Bjarke Ingels Group, Alexandra Barker from Barker Freeman Design Office and Hibino Sekkei’s Taku Hibino about potential teething problems in a discipline still in its relative infancy.

When Second Home London Fields opens later this year, it will have all the hallmarks of the original Second Home in Spitalfields. A design-led space for start-ups and entrepreneurs, it will maintain the bright colours and biophilic flourishes of its predecessor (including a treelined staircase). However, it will also incorporate a crèche and other child-oriented facilities, in a bid to help more working parents start businesses.

According to co-founder and co-CEO Rohan Silva, the aim is to create “the most family-friendly working environment in the city”. Childcare facilities in workspaces are not particularly common, but with more parents seeking flexible working arrangements, demand for such provisions is increasing.

“I’m painfully aware that our city doesn’t make it easy to be a working parent… The issue is childcare, because London is one of the worst cities in the developed world when it comes to affordable provision,” he wrote in the Evening Standard.

The building places childfriendliness at the heart of its design. The flooring in the public spaces is made from recycled car tyres, and the cafe tables have rounded edges – reducing the risk that an exploratory toddler will injure themselves.

Meanwhile, the crèche is architecturally contiguous with the adult workspace, echoing its distinctive colours and shapes. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that kids are entrepreneurs in the making, or business-minded adults should think like children. To put it another way, the boundary between work and play is artificial.

Across the Atlantic, WeGrow, an offshoot of the co-working company WeWork, is set to open in September. A primary school set inside the company’s New York headquarters, the project will take a progressive approach to education. This means teaching a curriculum in which spirituality, farming and ‘conscious eating’ feature as prominently as maths and science.

Schools for entrepreneurs

Billing itself as ‘conscious, entrepreneurial’, WeGrow also intends to replicate its parent company’s ethos of integrating work and purpose. In an interview, Rebekah Neumann, the project’s CEO and founder, and founding partner of WeWork, said, “There’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses.”

Whether or not that’s realistic, the company envisions a day when there’s a WeGrow school at every WeWork location. The aim is to give parents more time to spend with their kids, as well as undoing the compartmentalisation often found in school environments.

“The WeGrow school embeds the values of a new conscious approach to education,” says Daniel Sundlin, a partner at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which is designing the flagship facility. “The space of the school aspires to support the growth of the mind, body and soul of the 21stcentury child. Playful and transparent yet homelike and structured, WeGrow nurtures the child’s education through introspection, exploration and discovery.”

In practice, this means using open, interactive spaces. The materials are natural and rustic, and the colours understated, but the design has a futurist bent. As Sundlin puts it, the team tried to dream up a “school universe” from a child’s perspective.

“A field of super-elliptic objects forms a learning landscape that’s dense and rational yet free and fluid,” he adds. “Modular classrooms, tree houses, digital portals and a vertical farm promote an inclusive and collaborative learning environment. Acoustic clouds, natural materials and neutral colours create a calm setting for the child’s focused study.”

If this approach sounds overly theoretical, it’s worth remembering that preschool design is an inherently theoretical discipline. Perhaps, uniquely among design typologies, the end users’ opinions matter less than your opinions about those end users.

Through a child’s eyes

This means, whether you’re a Victorian disciplinarian designing an austere classroom or a modern architect creating a play area, you’re buying into certain ideas about child development.

According to Alexandra Barker, principal at Barker Freeman Design Office (BFDO), the past ten years have seen a shift towards more flexible spaces.

“There is more of an emphasis on keeping toys and spaces abstract to allow more open-ended play,” she says. “Unexpected visual connections, colours, and textures that surprise and perform in multiple ways allow children to bring their own imagination to a space.”

Last year, BFDO designed a Brookyn-based preschool in collaboration with 4|MATIV. Maple Street School, which has been designed to feel like ‘an extension of the home’, emphasises cooperation, curiosity and play.

“The school’s design followed the pedagogy of the its director, Wendy Cole, which emphasises parent involvement, and connections to the community of parents and the neighbourhood,” explains Barker.

“The school day begins with a social hour called cafe time, which collects the children together before starting their day in their classrooms. Modelled after a food truck, it has a service window and counter for adults to use, as well as a counter at toddlerheight that folds in when not in use.”

As this example demonstrates, one of the chief considerations when designing a kindergarten is a very basic one; namely, the small size of its users. Architects need to understand how the space will look through a child’s eyes, while ensuring it is convenient for parents and teachers.

Bathrooms, in particular, are important and, at Maple Street School, their views are controlled so that teachers can supervise, but enable children to have a sense of privacy.

“Understanding the difference in scale and orientation between an adult and a child is central to organising the space,” Barker points out. She adds that it is essential to focus on visuals, colours and textures from a child’s viewpoint to promote multivalent spaces. When spaces are scaled appropriately, children will feel fully connected to their environment, she highlights. What’s more, incorporating ‘real-world’ spaces, like the food truck kitchen, helps them draw links between home, school and community.

“The classrooms are partitioned with pairs of tall maple pocket doors, with oval cut-outs at different heights to give children and adults views between spaces. When the pocket doors are opened, the rooms become a single space for school-wide events,” Barker states.

Let children create

As per many other recent preschool designs, Maple Street School features warm material palettes and a gentle colour scheme. In this regard, it’s a world apart from the slightly garish feel one may typically associate with child-oriented architecture.

Hibino Sekkei, a Japanese firm specialising in educational facilities, is willing to take credit for this shift towards more understated play areas.

“Most kindergartens tend to be like amusement parks,” says the firm’s president and executive director, Taku Hibino. “But kindergartens are an educational facility, where children grow up. So using too many colours and animation characters is nonsense.”

He adds that the firm’s design philosophy – radical in its day – has elicited positive reactions globally.

“As a result, the number of toocolourful kindergartens that are like amusement parks has decreased, and the number of truly educational ones has increased,” he says.

In the 17 years since it was founded, Hibino Sekkei has designed more than 500 children’s facilities via its dedicated childcare division, Youji no Shiro, of which Hibino is director. Two recent examples are a preschool with an obstacle course and climbing nets, and another with a wooden playhouse inside to encourage domestic role play.

The firm believes that, as well as stimulating learning, preschools should be specially designed to boost kids’ activity levels.

“The educational perspective is a bit different in each country. But hoping that children grow up strong and healthy is the same in all countries and for all parents,” Hibino states. “We have some projects in progress in China and Japan that are focused on increasing children’s movements. And we are collaborating with university researchers to evince the relationship between children’s health and architecture.”

He adds that, since children are unable to choose their environment for themselves, architects should avoid overdesigning. Rather, young users ought be able to make the space their own.

“We need to leave room for children to create,” he says. “The important thing is leaving a blank space for them in such an educational field, though architects want to design everything.”

As Barker explains, striking a balance between flexibility and specificity is difficult, and perhaps constitutes one of the key challenges of preschool design.

“If designs are too flexible and changeable they do not have enough presence,” she expresses. “Often, things are not actually changed at the rate that they are designed for, and the aspirations of the design remain unfulfilled.”

Architects, then, need to create spaces that prompt creativity at the same time as keeping children stimulated. They need to encourage a sense of adventure at the same time as keeping them safe. And while design trends will continue to evolve in line with prevailing views of child development, this basic balancing act will remain consistent.

For companies like WeGrow, the goal is even more lofty – to help children ‘understand their superpowers’. Getting this right, from an architectural perspective, is evidently anything but child’s play.

This Yokohama-based nursery was designed by Hibino Sekkei.
The Japanese firm’s wooden playhouse design encourages domestic role play.
BIG is designing WeGrow’s flagship facility, with the goal of tailoring it to the needs of 21st-century kids.

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