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Devlin Architects’ Cambridgeshire pre-school creates free-flowing space on a budget

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The £640,000 project has replaced prefab buildings with a black timber-clad single-storey building in the village of Eaton Socon

Devlin Architects’ scheme has replaced aged Portakabins with a prefabricated timber-panel system. Black cladding sets the structure apart from the streetscape in Eaton Socon, a subsidiary village of St Neots, although its height and scale are sensitive to that of its neighbours. 

The building consists of three large classrooms with doorways that open on to a soft-play courtyard, which is surrounded by a polycarbonate and galvanised steel canopy to create a covered external space suitable for playing in all seasons. 

Maciek platek eatonsoconpre school 14

Maciek platek eatonsoconpre school 14

Windows rise and fall on the elevation, offering different views in and out and varying between units that are flush against the timber cladding, and recessed, fully openable units with hidden trickle vents. A shifting colour scheme runs through the colours of the rainbow on the doors and windows, starting with red at the entrance to reflect the colour of the logo of the charitable foundation that runs the pre-school.

Inside the classrooms, expressive vaulted ceilings are supported by an exposed timber and glulam frame. Acoustic and plain plastered surfaces complete the interior, alongside a grey resin floor that runs throughout the preschool and occasionally gives way to small carpeted areas for reading. 

Maciek platek eatonsoconpre school 18

Maciek platek eatonsoconpre school 18

Architect’s view 

This project has been a crazy journey full of hurdles and barriers. Examples of these obstacles include major funding concerns, an underground pre-1945 oil pipe and a knotweed infestation. Our clients are passionate about the educational services they provide, and this fuelled our enthusiasm for creating a building that would enable this charity to grow. Budgetary restraints meant that we had to think creatively in order to achieve their vision and to ensure internal and external environments that would allow the children to flourish. The importance of having free-flowing spaces with inside to outside play drove us to exploring a courtyard arrangement. This aspect of the design proved beneficial, particularly as the building is situated in such a tight space and on the boundary of a neighbour. 

We worked closely with the client to introduce architectural nuances that the children can engage with and embrace. We wanted to show two sides to the building – an expressive, colourful exterior of dark and natural cladding, and a composed and calming interior with carefully considered areas of colour and texture. The fun side of this project – in the form of window arrangement, colour and textural changes – is juxtaposed with the practical elements that ensure the safety of the children. The new pre-school has been received enthusiastically by staff, children and parents, and we hope it will represent a quality example of how early learning environments can be improved on a limited budget.

Simon Devlin, director, Devlin Architects 

1401 site plan

1401 site plan

Project data

Start on site August 2017
Completion April 2018
Gross internal floor area 319m²
Gross external floor area 354m²
Form of procurement Two-stage tender
Form of contract SBC/XQ – Standard Building Contract – No Bill of Quantities
Overall project cost £785,000 inc. preliminaries, overheads and profits
Construction cost £640,000
Construction cost per m² £1,808
Architect Devlin Architects 
Client Eaton Socon Preschool
Structural engineer Constant Structural Design
QS Gill Associates
Approved inspector Owl Building Control Solutions 
CDM coordinator Faithful Gould
Main contractor Mixbrow Construction 
CAD software used  AutoCAD LT Mac / Sketchup Pro
Air tightness 2.28m³/(h.m²) @ 50Pa
Annual CO2 emissions 22.58kg/m³ (solar panels to be installed in future)

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