Wak efield Council cast convention aside and was happy to play ball with landscape architect Estell Warren on its scheme to construct a children's adventure play forest on a derelict allotment site. Sutherland Lyall spoke to the practice's Steve Warren about how the design, which fuses the natural with the artificial, evolved.
Last year Leeds-based landscape architect Estell Warren and Allen Tod Architecture registered for a series of competitions. These had been set up by Channel 4 and Wakefield Metropolitan District Council as the major elements in a regeneration scheme - the Castleford Project. Filmed by TV production company Talkback, the stories of the 11 projects involved will be used in a future series of Grand Designs. Estell Warren and Allen Tod won two of the projects and are in good company with celebrity designers such as Martha Schwartz, Deborah Saunt and Jan Gehl, who all have their own schemes. Because this was primarily a landscape project, Estell Warren concentrated on the Cutsyke Play Forest and Allen Tod on its other successful bid, the Wilson Street community development - with which the landscape architect did not have a lot of involvement.
GARDEN OF DREAMS The original play forest design for this derelict allotment site had a magical, dramatic quality, with layers and slopes of coloured steel meshes suspended among a forest of raking blue steel posts whose tops glowed with mysterious lights. A tight grid was suspended above a bigger planning grid, with a secondary layer of timber roundels and an overlaid lattice of birch trees all penetrated by giant diagonal tubes - the modern enclosed version of the slide. The designers describe it as creating the look of a half-built construction site, in and among which children could set their own scenarios and improvise their own play. An essential principle of the design was an aim to fuse together the natural and the artificial: trees and logs with steel and flexible mesh; hi-tech lights powered by the sun. Estelle Warren's Steve Warren says: 'We are eco freaks on the one hand and hi-tech junkies on the other, and we want to explore the extremes of both and bash them together now and then.' Although the basic design proposition remains, quite a lot has had to change because of cost and safety. Notably, the poles have lost their rake, much of the ground surface patterning in solid materials has become bark, and some elements such as the mini birch forest have had to be removed to the edge of the main play area. Happily, most of these revisions were made right at the beginning of the design process.
Architects would find the contract familiar enough but not the way it was run. This was a standard JCLI (Joint Council for Landscape Industries) Agreement for Landscape Works - it is rather like the JCT Minor Works contract. And the specification was written using the landscape version of the NBS. Because the specs for the structural elements were standard manufacturers' clauses, NBSL was mostly used for specifying plant material.
The first striking difference about this contract is the absence of a quantity surveyor. Warren says: 'There were no complicated financial elements. We run multimillion-pound contracts without a quantity surveyor. It's because we like to have a very good handle ourselves on what things cost. Anyway, with a specialised project like this it is doubtful if a quantity surveyor would know any more than us.' The second unusual aspect was the high level of the landscape architect's day-to-day involvement. This helped them keep a handle on costs. As Warren explains: 'We got the prices first [from the manufacturers] and then went out to tender for the main contract. When the successful bidder, Brambledown Landscape Services, came in we talked about savings.' An important saving was in the way materials were procured. Warren says: 'Because of budget constraints we couldn't have the main contractor putting his [substantial] mark-up on materials simply because they were passing through his books.
The normal mark-ups would have necessitated severe changes, so we agreed with Wakefield that they would buy the [building materials and components] and supply them free to the main contractor - and would ensure that they would have them on site on time.' In one case Wakefield supplied the raw materials from its own resources. Warren went out for a day with the Wak efi eld forestry department and selected logs. They were later delivered and packed into their final position in a series of earth cones just outside the edge of the main grid.
Warren says: 'It was quite brave of Wakefield not to do the conventional thing. This has caused a few hiccups but there have been few claims and they were massively lower than with a normal contract. And the whole project remained within budget.' This early knowledge of prices and the close cooperation which characterised the construction was the result of having decided on suppliers without them tendering. And it required the close involvement (apart from the locals who helped research existing play schemes) of consultants, safety inspectors and manufacturers right at the beginning of design. The latter group mainly involved play-system manufacturer Sutcliffe Play, net manufacturer Hammond & Taylor and play structure installer Pennine Playgrounds. They were in the group with Peter Heseltine of the Play Inspection Company and structural engineer Capita Symonds, which reviewed the early design, straightened up the poles and moved elements. Warren says: 'It was very useful talking to the suppliers and it was very easy. So we all agreed what we were going to do. They provided prices and we worked with that, not the usual three-tender process.
'Of course, we had to make a case to Wakefield for why we would go direct. But you can only have completion where there is real choice. We reviewed quite a few play companies to see if they were willing to [accommodate] bespoke design or if they had a system in place which was near what we wanted.
Some companies were not interested in doing modifications.
Others had systems which were unsuitable. And one of the primary reasons for taking this route was that we discovered that Sutcliffe's Teenzone system filled the bill.' In fact, the company's maximum pole length was 6.5m - only a little longer than envisaged for the main 'forest' poles, so that looked like synergy. Warren says: 'Robin Sutcliffe will probably say 'Never again' but he is very forward looking. The play industry needs people like him. He is prepared to look at these more unusual schemes.' So, Warren explains, 'we could use Sutcliffe's existing specification and system with a few adaptations - and it was the same for Hammond & Taylor.'
SAFETY RULES Warren says: 'There is a European standard about play which means you need to prototype new products and you have to have anything new risk-assessed. Peter Heseltine, the play safety inspector, assessed the risks of our design against the standard BS EN 1176 and found them acceptable.' The rule is that an approved safety company has to inspect a play project as soon as it is finished. Warren says: 'What we all wanted to avoid was to build it and then find lots of problems, and that was another reason for all getting together at the beginning. In the end there were just a few things which we had to change.
WEAVING WEBS Warren says: 'With the nets you asked whether you go for rope or for a man-made product. Sutcliffe said they had a German hemp rope company and Hammond & Taylor of Grimsby in mind for the net. We went to see them and they showed that the best solution was the use of interwoven coloured polypropylene and galvanized steel wire. The next question was how to fix the ropes in the form of a net. The choice of fixings was aluminium or stainless steel clips - or using plastic eggs (from Polyfix AB) which are clipped together with a stainless steel screw through the rope and the two halves.
'The key reason for using the eggs was that you could change them on site without closing down the whole playground.
The final reason for using them is that they come in bright red and blue, so we could contrast the colours of fixings and rope.'
POLES APART Half the supporting poles are 150mm in diameter and 6m long on a 3m grid, and the other half are 3m long on a 1.5m grid, with welded steel lugs for attaching the nets and, in some cases, platforms spanning between poles. The latter were fabricated by Sutcliffe in 6mm mild steel plate and sent out to Yorkshire Rubber Linings to be given a 3mm natural rubber coating on each side .
The pole-top lights were, says Warren, 'probably the most difficult item to source. We looked at variants of the solar-powered garden light. The problem is that they have a battery life of two years and the CDM guy wasn't too keen on how they would be replaced. Still, we bought one or two. But they weren't powerful enough. But we had seen these 12V cluster LEDs by Malham.
So we hunted around and found EDC [Energy Development Co-operative] which ran a design service and could supply the [solar panel] equipment. So we have a photovoltaic panel located to one side of the scheme and the cables were run [by Tilen Electrics] from there up inside each of the poles.' Slightly awkwardly, Malham has discontinued the LED cluster lights. 'It's not a problem, ' Warren says, 'because they have such a long life.' The polycarbonate laminate covers are from Barkston Plastics Engineering.
CUSHIONING THE FALL There are few choices for play surfaces. One is sand - although cats are a problem. There are rubber surfaces, wet-poured in situ or laid as tiles. Either rubber system is good but expensive and, argues Warren, not the right aesthetic solution for this project. 'And kids burn it, ' he says. So a 400mm layer of low-capital bark mulch from Amenity and Horticultural Services was laid under the main area and Wakefield is prepared to do the topping up in the years to come. At the bottom of the chutes/slides are rectangles of Safety Mattas from Matta Products, a seeded rubber matting which enables wheelchair access across the difficult-to-negotiate bark. Warren says:
'You lay the Matta over topsoil and the grass grows through. We used it because it has an informal look and we know it works.' Warren says in conclusion: 'The thing I'm most pleased about is the backing we have had from Wakefield. Once they decided on the route we had suggested, they stuck to it like glue.'