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building study - Under a sheltering portal roof, Alsop and Partners has created a nursery world for young children to explore, including accommodation in stacked sea containers and a Mongolian yurt

Building a nursery school as a pavilion to a park that does not yet exist, among residential towers that are to be demolished and having just six months for its construction, helped stimulate the creative juices at Alsop. The result is a fun building, a marker of change in its area, and one that will fit in in time.

This is all happening within a masterplan by Terence O'Rourke. The nursery is on the extensive Stonebridge Estate in Harlesden, north London, which has been and will continue to be rebuilt over many years.

Demolition of the adjacent tower and slab is a couple of years away, and the nursery will be sitting in a building site after that. The openfeeling, yet contained, building is both a neat architectural move and a protective necessity.

Alsop's play enclosure is an industrial portal frame, adapted to form a trapezium on plan, which broadens to address the proposed park. Corrugated metal and polycarbonate form a sheltering roof. Enclosure 'walls' are of metal mesh, heavier at ground level for security. The architect has made this feel more intriguing than forbidding, though. At high level there are mesh butterflies and rosettes.

Along the sides run rows of coloured Plexiglas lozenges interwoven with the upper mesh (see Working Details, pages 32-33), which can cast multicoloured sunlight patterns on the nursery floor. At night, uplighting of the mesh and downlighting from fittings attached to the containers shift the focus again. In time, climbers will populate the lower mesh.

Within this simple enclosure, the architect has created a complex world for children to explore. Three container stacks are disposed to create three partially enclosed outdoor areas for use most of the year - for soft/water/ sand play, for exploring a willow and hazel tunnel and den, and for a yurt. Project artist Joanna Turner is experienced in commissioning artworks for special education needs, and initiated, for example, the soft-play area and willow and hazel structures. The yurt was specially made by Bruton Yurt Company; it is Building Regulations compliant, its timber-grid framing insulated with sheep's wool, with double glazing, appropriate airtightness and underfloor heating.

The recycled containers are stacked threehigh to form three buildings, connected by open steel-framed access decks (these do not support the containers, so do not need special structural fire protection). Imported from China to south Wales, the containers were adapted partly off site, with openings made, porthole windows inserted and, on the top floor, the end doors fixed open to support balconies between. Spray insulation, cabling and plasterboard lining were also done off site, though there was some on-site power circuit connection plus installation of data cabling.

Generally, the containers are structurally self-supporting, although beams have been inserted where the sides were removed, and in a few instances there are columns buried within partitions. The containers were available in 6m or 12m lengths. The majority used here are 6m long, but some have been cut down to create the 9m-long units on the top floor and the staircase enclosures.

Designed for Stonebridge Housing Action Trust and officially known as the Fawood Children's Centre, the project replaces an existing facility. Following the government's Sure Start principles, it provides education (and health checks) for three-year-olds to fiveyear-olds, as well as support for parenting. The ground floor and first floor are the nursery spaces. The second floor is the Children's Centre, including adult learning facilities and a base for community education workers. The whole Children's Centre can be hired separately by community groups when the nursery is closed in the evenings or at weekends. Overall capacity is around 45 mainstream children plus 10 with special educational needs. (Crèche facilities for children up to two years old and their parents are located elsewhere in Brent borough. ) This was a design and build contract, with the architect novated to contractor Durkan.

Relations were good and the architect had opportunities to work with subcontractors, especially on the mesh facades. Site workshops were held and mock-ups made during the contract. The only significant source of delay was caused by problems achieving the required quality of work on the containers, usually adapted for more prosaic uses, which led to an opening in October rather than a July handover.

Where containers have previously been used as mainstream buildings, such as at Container City in London's Docklands, they have a feel of second-class accommodation. Here the whole scheme is idiosyncratic enough for the containers to feel at home. The cost analysis shows that adapting containers is not that cheap. Architect Alan Lai suggests they may have about a 20-year life. There is the flexibility to add to the stacks in future.

The idea of sheltered, protected playspace is not new. For example, in a more open-site context, Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture used an oversailing roof to shelter its nursery buildings and playdecks, though there was also direct access to surrounding green space (AJ 7.10.04). Here, for Alsop, the nursery has had to be more contained. It is an ingenious balance of protection and openness, and of creating a children's world apart, while making an optimistic visual statement of future commitment to this improving, grey neighbourhood.

Mongolian yurt Bruton Yurt Company; reconstituted sea containers Urban Space Management; structural steel DA Green & Sons; willow and hazel structures Hannah Sida; play equipment Andy Frost Sculptor;

landscaping Acacia Gardens & Horticulture; electrical contractor East West Electrics WEBLINKS Adams Kara Taylor www. akt-uk. com Fulcrum Consulting www. fulcrumfirst. com Pinnacle Building Services Engineering Consultants www. pinnacleconsultants. com Durkan www. durkan. co. uk Calford Seaden Partnership www. calfordseaden. co. uk

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