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Building the Arcadia Nursery: the client's view

Malcolm Fraser Architects' Arcadia Nursery
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The client behind the £2.5 million RIBA and RIAS award-winning nursery talks to the AJ about giving freedom to the creative process and being supportive of new ideas


‘Fundamental to our approach to the new nursery, was that the building would facilitate the most forward thinking approach to early years education, to ensure that as a University we were prioritising the educational potential for even the youngest in our care.

‘An important consideration in letting the design evolve effectively was to allow sufficient time in the programme to ensure a thorough briefing period, with the opportunities to visit other nurseries, learn from their experience of procuring a new facility, and to review contemporary examples of best practice in both the UK and abroad.

‘This was important for both the architect and the client to learn what was required, what worked well and to challenge the status quo as to how an early year’s environment should be.

‘The nursery managers were keen to embrace the ‘free-play’ concept, which encourages children to make their own decisions about what they would like to do during the day, to nurture their developing independence; within this approach children are also encouraged to spend some time with younger and older children to develop a sense of responsibly and respect towards others. They are also allowed to spend time with their own siblings. This moves away from the situation found in many nurseries where children are restricted to their playroom for the day, with allocated outdoor time more reminiscent of a school environment, rather than a creative, learning-through-play setting.

‘To facilitate this, the building’s layout allows connectivity between all playrooms and shared areas, but with an ability to close-off and open-up spaces as the staff required throughout the day. Each playroom flows outdoors, with a sheltered in-between space, allowing children to spend as much or as little time outdoors each day as they wish. There are also several shared areas, allowing further diversity from the playroom – a children’s kitchen, dining area, art and messy areas and a multi-purpose room for smaller groups. Arcadia has now been in operation since August 2014 and this approach is proving very successful, with parents and staff noting the difference it is making in comparison to the previous setting.

‘Central to creating a building as innovative as Arcadia Nursery was putting faith in Malcolm Fraser Architects and the design team to deliver a building that was at the forefront of educational, architectural and structural thinking. The building is constructed entirely from cross-laminated timber, this evolved early in the process as a potential technology to consider as structurally it offered clear roof volumes – facilitating raised mezzanine areas - it was also lightweight and suitable to construct on a tight site surrounded by trees and visually it creates a warm, tactile and welcoming environment ideal for young children. Added to this was a quicker build programme, due to the precision cutting of all elements off site, and numerous sustainability benefits that allowed us to achieve a 100 per cent score in the BREEAM materials and pollution categories.

Construction was challenging on many fronts

‘Constructing a building in this manner was challenging on many fronts, as its use has been very limited in Scotland to date, but through much research and discussion the design team were able to establish its absolute suitability for the project and we were supportive in allowing this to develop, realising the benefits it could bring to the project.

‘Our advice for other clients commissioning work in this sector would be: allow plenty of time for the brief and design ideas to evolve; question convention at all steps along the way; do not stifle the creative process and be supportive of new ideas; visit other examples (good or bad) because this generates much discussion – particularly when the user client may not be familiar with the process or with reading technical drawings; and create a focused client group to develop the brief who broadly represent the significant elements of the project – in our case education/childcare, operating finances/ business and the building ownership/maintenance aspects of the project.’

Cliff Barraclough is the University of Edinburgh’s estates development manager

Malcolm Fraser Architects' Arcadia Nursery for the University of Edinburgh

Malcolm Fraser Architects’ Arcadia Nursery for the University of Edinburgh

Malcolm Fraser Architects’ Arcadia Nursery for the University of Edinburgh

Project data

Client The University of Edinburgh
Contractor Balfour Beatty
Contract value £2.5 million
Gross internal area 832m²
Region Scotland




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