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Specifier's choice:Effra Early Years Centre, Brixton, London

Sutherland Lyall talks with Catherine Harrington, an associate at Architype, who explains the issues involved in specifying environmentally sound and sustainable materials in a design-build contract

Lambeth Borough Council's Effra Early Years Centre is more than halfway through construction at Effra Parade, Brixton. It is one of a number of new facilities being built under the Department for Education and Skills' (DfES) SureStart scheme. It is, as Architype's Catherine Harrington puts it, 'a creative overlap between community centres and nurseries.' The government's ambition is to provide facilities for children between birth and the age of five, improving their health, social and emotional development and learning, as well as strengthening families and communities.

Along with the nursery, the Effra Centre also has a group of community facilities - each with its own director. But there is a natural enough synergy. Harrington elaborates: 'Although they are completely different services, there is overlapping in the sense that there is child-care, a crèche and training and meeting facilities which can be used by both the community and parents.'

Keep it simple The plan of this single-storey scheme has a central reception area in a double-height space, which reads as a tower from outside, with the nursery on the west and the community spaces on the east.

The windows along the south wall open out under a 4m-deep canopy, which has Roche aluminium roller shutters at its edge, allowing children to store their toys and bicycles securely. During the day, the shutters are rolled up, giving the children a large open-air play space, with outdoor shelter from rain and snow. The north corner of the complex contains staff rooms and facilities, and on the east are meeting and training rooms, WCs and a big space that can be divided in two with folding doors. In front of the community block is a similar, but smaller, outdoor space with a 1.5m-deep sheltering canopy over two double doors.

It seems simple but the plan is an ingenious solution to the problem of having a community centre and nursery on the same site.

There were great benefits for the financing of the scheme if a year's worth of decanting costs could be avoided. So the design allows the old building to remain operational for the duration of the building contract.

Harrington explains: 'The first phase was to cut back the existing building and build the new nursery around it - saving money we would have spent on having to decant the nursery for a year. It was a cost benefit and a massive issue of continuity for the staff and children. It also meant we had more money freed up, which could be assigned to the new building.' Construction is very simple, comprising load-bearing block-work, timber roof joists, plywood decking with insulation, and a single membrane skin. Where spans are greater than can be achieved easily with timber, such as in the nursery, there are steel H-columns and I-beams. The floor of the large, doublespace community room, where there will probably be exercise classes, is sprung. Otherwise, floors are a sand-cement screed on a beam-and-block suspended floor.

Architype won the contract following shortlisting and interviews. The practice, which also has a Gloucester office, is building a number of children's centres around the country, so it has a firm track record and grasp of the peculiarities of this kind of work and the organisations involved. The design was developed during a process of consultation with Lambeth council, the DfES, the current head teacher, a governor and the director of the community centre.

Design and build Lambeth wanted a design and build contract in which the architect and other consultants produced and costed the design, secured planning, took the contract to tender stage, followed the competitive tendering for the building contract and became novated to the successful main contractor - here HG Construction.

The quantity surveyor, Gordon Hutchinson, became the client's representative and the services engineer, Michael Popper Associates, novated with the architects. Because the original structural engineer pulled out unexpectedly, the contractor's choice of PRC Structural Engineering was appointed instead. Harrington says: 'It has become a good team, working well together. We worked very closely with the Gordon Hutchinson team on lots of early-years projects.

We used our own M&E engineer to maintain the quality of the lighting specification and because they had developed a detailed understanding of the user group's requirements. As a commitment to the project, they did a lighting and electrical and socket layout, and the heating strategy, which we included in the tender drawings.' Architype is committed to sustainability - and to the quality of its buildings. In a worst-case design and build contract this can be difficult. Harrington went to a great deal of trouble to sew up the specification, making it clear from the beginning that the use and quality of sustainable materials was a primary issue. She explains: 'We prepared typical details and an environmental specification for the scheme with a schedule of the quality of finishes plus a schedule of lighting, ironmongery, doors and windows. The purpose was to provide more cost and quality certainty than in the normal design-build contract.

'We incorporated an environmental agenda for the building: we ensured that no PVC materials were used, even in the roof. We specified non-vinyl flooring and requested that the timber be FSC certified. Insulation was to be none ozone-depleting, and not CFC- or HCF-based. And we provided a list of acceptable suppliers.' But this was not as full-blown as the practice wanted. Harrington says: 'In the end, we didn't use the NBS. We made notes on the drawings and wrote room-by-room descriptions. This was a reduced specification, far less stringent than we would have deployed in a regular JCT contract. Another way to put it is that we have accepted that there are restrictions, in part due to the design-build contract.

We could have specified all the items but that would have involved a full specification and full working drawings.' And it would no longer have been design and build.

However, there were fairly detailed M&E drawings for lighting, and a detailed specification for the electrics and security. Harrington says: 'We were careful in the selection of the contractor. HG Construction is experienced in building among schools which continue to function, like this one.' HG Construction also had a user group, which took views on aspects such as paint colours, the arrangement of nursery kitchen equipment (from Commercial Catering and specified by the services engineer), socket outlet sites, security, and the specification of the non-PVC flooring. One of the main reasons for choosing the contractor, Harrington says, was that 'it was familiar with the process and has been quite helpful in incorporating this process into the development of the project.

Although the industry standard CAD is AutoCAD or Microstation, Architype uses VectorWorks. Harrington says: 'We do a lot of three-dimensional work in modelling, and VectorWorks is very easy to use for that and for drafting. There are no compatibility issues because the files can be read by AutoCAD.'

Sustainable specification No one should imagine that specifying for sustainability is straightforward, especially in a design-and-build contract. For example, Harrington's team wanted to use a virtuous fly-ash block for the load-bearing walls, until the engineer pointed out that it would be a much better structural idea to use the Tarmac Topblock, now in service.

Harrington explains how important it was to achieve FSC certificates for the doors. 'We asked for certificates for all the timber - and for formaldehyde-free MDF'.

Outer face The Tarmac Topblock external walls are clad by PermaRock, whose system comprises polystyrene, zero ozone-depleting insulation. The top layer does have resin in it.

Harrington says: 'We said in the spec notes, 'Sto or equivalent', but we specified a polystyrene as the base insulation because the outside will face rough treatment and it is reinforced. We are using polystyrene because it is better than some other composite, more highly polluting insulations.' The roof has the same polystyrene insulation laid over the ply decking, with a non-PVC, Spectraroof system from Ruberoid. It is based on polyethylene, says the manufacturer, using a special catalyst and process, which produces a blend of polyethylene and other polymers that behave as a thermoplastic elastomer.

It is flexible and rubbery at normal service temperatures and does not need separate plasticisers to achieve this, as PVC does.

Harrington says: 'We started with Erisco Bauder, but to maintain a pricing strategy we gave a list of suppliers that could supply this.

To get a competitive price, HG Construction looked at a number of compatible materials.

It's a very simple roof laid to falls and gutters in the same material. As for the whole shell, we adopted a very simple construction which was difficult to get wrong.' The only complications have been the scattered rooflights, which are either large, sloping north-facing rooflights from Velux with Saint Gobain anti-bandit glazing, or circular rooflights for which it was not possible to get anti-bandit glass, so the architect designed steel grilles.

Specifying exception The architect did specify the windows and glazed doors used extensively along the two south elevations. Harrington is happy with them: 'They are by Sampson, are very like Velfac windows and they do look good. They are an aluminium and timber composite window, which can be used for doors and windows. Both have Secured by Design certification.' This is partly because the glass is a high-specification laminated anti-bandit glass from Saint Gobain.

In contrast, Harrington says of the architectural ironmongery: 'We have used a simple system of basic lever and push-or-pull bars from the Laidlaw Contract range. This was at the request of the contractor, who has had a longstanding relationship with Laidlaw and finds its prices competitive.'

Down to earth Flooring was a major issue because the children have closer contact with it than adults do, although in the multi-use community spaces it is anticipated that adults will take part in exercise classes. The activity rooms have a simple Danskin system sprung timber floor, which can be used with underfloor heating, in this case an Osma Pocketed Polystyrene system, with a Lino Art linoleum surface from Armstrong Floors. This resulted from a performance specification from the services engineer. The nursery floor covering is a Dalsouple rubber, Harrington says, 'with a textured finish not unlike slate, which has a high non-slip factor. We got samples of many flooring materials for the client-user group to experiment with when wet.' In the common areas, the flooring is Ecoplan Delta 2 from Freudenberg. It is around 80 per cent reclaimed rubber, and has a speckled finish. The ceramic tiles in all the wet areas in WCs and kitchens are Nova Stone from Swedecor - although the tiles are made in Portugal. Harrington's team has used this tile before and she says: 'It is hardwearing and has a non-slip finish. Elsewhere, we have specified it for indoor and outdoor use because it is frost-resistant - and there is an area where we expect to use it for both locations at Effra.' Outdoor paving is dark grey Perfecta from Marshalls.

On the inside Internally, the surface of the blockwork walls is painted plasterboard. The architect decided reluctantly that, although it had used organic paints on other projects, here it was going to be too expensive. It has designed some of the built-in furniture such as the island hand basins in the nursery WC pod, an amorphous sofa in the reception space and a serif-shaped breakfast bench.

Free-form shaped 'clouds' are scattered across the nursery ceiling. The clouds are to be made from a British Gypsum Rigitone insulation board and fitted with their own lighting - although the client is currently considering fit-out proposals that include some ingenious multi-function partition/ tables. The signage for the centre will be back-illuminated, acrylic-faced lettering with stainless steel edges from Zillwood Signmasters.

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