Text description provided by the architects. The East Sydney Early Learning Centre is an adaptive re-use of an existing 4 level 1920’s industrial building to house a 60 place childcare centre and community space within the tight knit urban grain of Darlinghurst. The scope of works included the complete stripping of the existing building including all interiors, structure and windows to create a new 4 level childcare and community building, a complete re-working of the adjacent John Birt Memorial Playground, integrated into the centre through a new bridge link across Berwick Lane, and a complete refurbishment of the public domain including Berwick Lane Stairs and streetscape.
Initial Project Brief
The initial project brief requested the closure of Berwick Lane to connect the John Birt memorial playground with the existing building, suggesting the childcare centre occupy the lower three levels of the existing building, with the community centre located on the top level.
Urban Strategy - Transformation of Project Brief through ‘Treehouse Bridge’
Following detailed urban analysis, community consultation and City of Sydney review we developed a far more inventive urban strategy – the laneway remained open and was significantly improved through a new stair construction, the community centre was located at the lower ground level to animate and enliven the laneway, and the top 3 levels of the building housed the childcare, with a treehouse bridge link crossing the laneway and providing a journey down to the ground level of the playground.
Approach to Child Pedagogy – ‘Mini City’ Concept
Against a backdrop of regulations and orthodoxies focusing on safe sightlines and transparency of structures as a guiding principle, often leading to internal play spaces of wall to ceiling glazing, the philosophy of this project emphasised childhood imagination and play as its guiding framework and inspiration. The building was conceived as a ‘mini-city’ that enabled experiential learning by re-imagining the urban fabric at a child’s scale. A series of play space houses or ‘pods’ are connected by a network of social laneways and indoor parks. A double height centrally located light well houses an urban plaza in the form of a large sandpit. A rooftop garden connects the imaginative city of the building with the real city viewed beyond. All decisions on layout, material detailing, window openings, and finishes, including infrastructural elements such as fire sprinklers, were conceptualised to encourage a fascination with cities and city life as a guiding pedagogical tenet for the childcare.
Two further considerations within the development the internal ‘pod’ buildings animating the existing fabric was the creation of opportunities for funnels of natural light deep into the buildings’ interior, and the creation of a highly articulated interior for internal play spaces, creating a range of spatial circumstances for the many learning activities occurring within the interior including active play, theatrical play, imaginative play, and opportunities for quiet play.
Historically serving a smaller adjacent kindergarten, the John Birt memorial playground was linked by the urban strategy of the ‘treehouse bridge’ connection from the main childcare building. The bridge and tree house platform provide additional outdoor playspace centred around a jacaranda tree, while also providing the required shading for the playspaces below. The playground design focussed on creating a range of textural experiences and play types organically unfolding around the existing trees, incorporating a mud pit, sand pit, amphitheatre, outdoor class room and interactive water wall, while creating acoustic separation from the adjacent dwellings.
The sustainability objectives of the East Sydney Early Learning Centre were aligned with the City of Sydney 2030 Sustainability objectives. Initiatives included photovoltaic cells for rooftop solar capture, bio-filtration at the window openings through internal planters and landscaping, mixed mode ventilation and thermal zoning to contain and minimise areas of air-conditioning, alternative sources of user thermal comfort including solar boosted hydronic heating and radiators, extensive use of light wells to create daylighting deep into the internal fabric of the building, rainwater harvesting and use of water efficient fixtures, green transport planning including cycle parking and staff change facilities, and a regime of material selection for sustainable materials including non-toxic materials with high recycled content and/or highly recyclable, low VOC finishes, low formaldehyde products & furniture, sustainable timbers, rapidly renewable and locally sourced materials.