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Top of the class

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building study - The first of four schools we look at this week is a nursery in Hounslow by Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture, most identifiable for its 'big top' roof that shelters classrooms, courtyards and outdoor play areas

This sheltering roof has a symbolic role as well as the pragmatic one of providing the sort of covered play spaces that other nurseries can only envy. The encompassing tent expresses the developing role of nurseries in taking an inclusive (joined-up) approach to the early years of family life. It takes on the government's broader Sure Start agenda, supporting the early years of childhood not only by providing play and educational experiences for children from six months to five years old, but also health checks, support for parenting skills and for parents seeking employment. In particular, nurseries that also act as Children's Centres are venues for contact and training of those working in childcare. On this particular project, many of the spaces are available for community hire too and, as nurseries increasingly do, it is open for the working day, from 7.30am to 6.30pm, Monday to Friday.

Nursery on the Green is a neighbourhood nursery and children's centre and a member of the National Day Nursery Association (NDNA). NDNA is a charity with many nurseries as members, pioneering childcare and its quality standards. As part of demonstrating good practice, NDNA is developing regional centres that are also nurseries themselves - the current programme is for one in each of the nine English government regions.

Nursery on the Green is the fifth of these. As both client and pioneer, NDNA is open to the sort of design ideas being tried here by Cottrell & Vermeulen.

The architect won this job through competitive interview and began with the concept of a small tented city, each unit close to nature, developing this into a more buildable collection of spaces under one big top - effectively a rainscreen roof of polycarbonate on a steel frame. Other usual roof functions of providing ceilings, thermal and acoustic insulation (it is beneath Heathrow Airport's flight path), services routing, etc, are located in the tops of the classroom volumes below. (Netting keeps birds from the gap between. ) Having collected the spaces together under one roof, the architect did not want to dilute the tent idea of outdoor connection more than necessary. There are very generous sheltered outdoor play decks immediately on the north side for each of the main children's spaces, and within the plan are more play decks to the east and an internal 'beach' courtyard - a sand-filled room rather than a sand pit. The design development involved consultation with the multi-ethnic local community, with sessions set up in the primary school next door.

Entering the building takes you through the sort of security we are coming to expect in such places - a formal desk and little sense of the spaces beyond, a set of priorities that inevitably militates against the open, drop-in atmosphere that would be particularly helpful to some in the local community.

Immediately off this reception is the children's centre, and ranged beyond are the main children's spaces. The plan contains the different age groups within largely separate, though interconnected, areas, so devoting very little space to pure circulation. The beach is an important central focus to this plan, with extensive windows connecting it to adjacent spaces so that it feels like another room rather than simply a light shaft, in the way that small internal courtyards can.

Separation of age groups continues to the northerly covered play decks, though with their colourful flooring and play equipment, these three play areas flow together. It is only beyond, out in the uncovered play gardens, that the corralling by fencing becomes obtrusive.

In turn, beyond these play gardens, there is a perimeter band of 'nature garden', created at the behest of the planners, including some 400 shrubs plus wild flowers.

Cottrell & Vermeulen's tented approach is a very logical and straightforward one to providing and linking indoor and covered outdoor space. It is an especially valuable provision of year-round varied spaces for children who are increasingly spending many hours each day at nursery. It is an eminently reusable approach, if other nursery funders will agree.

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