D+S partnering with Holmes Miller to enhance the future of Early Years education

Fraser McQuarrie (Doig+Smith) and Mark Ellson (Holmes Miller) partnered up to give us their views on the plans to deliver a programme of Early Years provision.

When observing early walking pre-school toddlers within nursery settings, it is easy to appreciate that in excess of 2,300 steps per hour are accumulated, with children walking more than 2.6 miles per day within a playroom setting. This figure increases in children when walking becomes more confident and risk of falls diminishes. It therefore becomes difficult to imagine how this energy and movement can be accommodated, when minimum space standards for New Early Years Centres are being applied.

Recognising the significant investment being made in Early Years provision across the UK, Doig+Smith and Holmes Miller have questioned whether a ‘metric led’ approach to design will derive the optimum environment for pre-school education, and challenge local authorities to consider an ‘experience based’ accommodation schedule to create a truly immersive learning environment.

In short, the area metrics for Early Years expansion relate directly to the funding mechanisms upon which these projects are being procured. They are vital to the quantity surveyors and programme managers involved at strategic level, formulating the Capital Plans for the UK’s local authorities, to fund these projects – and these are the disciplines that rely on this benchmark data to provide them with a basis for supporting an Early Years Expansion Programme. This however, is where the function of ‘the metric’ should end, and in the context of delivering innovative
learning environments, should be the hidden cost mechanism, not the governing factor dictating these projects. Application of ‘the metric’ should therefore have little influence over the educationalists, teaching staff, architects and designers involved in the Early Years programme and the notion of directly applying a square metre per child ratio to the design of an Early Years Facility could be seen to contradict the documented best practice and published learnings of key educationalists, stifling opportunities for development of a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence, along with their physical, social and personal awareness skills.

Our design approach would not only provide local authorities with outstanding value for money, but would offer pre-school children an engaging and dynamic Early Year setting, within which they can grow and develop. Fully embracing Early Years contemporary guidance, this design response would enrich the Early Years curriculum through the following:
• Interconnected playrooms grouped around a central courtyard, with flexible partitions to allow the spaces to adapt to suit teaching activities, dining and sleeping. Formed using an efficient modular design, these indoor playrooms will use natural materials to create a calming environment, whilst fully sliding doors effortlessly connect between inside and out.
• A vibrant and dynamic nursery courtyard, fully undercover and protected from the elements, this space offers children the opportunity to run, jump and explore, out with the playroom setting, in fresh air. This space is designed to provide children with exposure to a huge range of experiences.

-Holmes Miller / D+S = 1120m2 (Area), £1,680,000 (Cost), £1,500 (Cost / m2)
-SFT Metric2 = 580m2 (Area), £1,740,000 (Cost), £3,000 (Cost / m2)

The ramps to two sides of the courtyard allow pupils to run onto the roof of the playrooms and experience an elevated view over the nursery. The lightweight roof of the courtyard will transform the environment of the nursery with the weather patterns, with lighting illuminating the space, raindrops filling the space with noise and sunlight casting shadows across the ground. The scale of this space will allow Early Years staff to create a multitude of experiences for children, offering tents and tepees as reading corners, indoor planting areas that form small winter gardens, material areas to allow construction, water play and craft skills to be taught on a far larger scale and growing areas where soft fruit and vegetables can be planted. Principally however, the courtyard is an active space where children can move freely. The open sides to the enclosure will allow the noise of pupils to be heard across the surrounding neighbourhood, integrating the building as part of the community.

• The landscape surrounding the early years centre would be equally as engaging, with a series of ‘low-tech’ interventions designed to bring educational benefit. Rainwater would be collected and used within the garden areas, or distributed through a surface swale to form a wetland garden. Linked to the bin store would be a composting area, allowing organic produce to be reused within raised beds. The landscaping would offer a range of textures and surfaces, with ‘risk elements’ introduced, such as climbing trees, mounds and tunnels to allow children to develop their self-confidence and agility skills. A fire pit, activity lawn and decked areas will offer practical spaces for outdoor learning to take place, bringing the key lessons from woodland nurseries directly to urban and suburban local authority centres.

Our ‘simple’ and modular approach brings with it the potential to shorten construction periods – a key driver when considering the desire to meet the governments planned 1140hrs rollout of August 2020.

With a confirmed total budget of £476m for capital spend on new, refurbishment and extension projects, it’s important that local authorities are able to demonstrate that their allocated budgets are being spent wisely and delivering true value for money. Our proposal delivers an extra 540m2 of building area for less than the upper limit of cost. Taken back to a cost per m2 the scheme is highly efficient at £1,500/m2 compared to the metric of £3,000/m2.

This is further enhanced as the design is recognised by the Care Inspectorate with regards indoor/outdoor space and can, in theory, accommodate 120 children for less than the budget for 100 children. With this knowledge, and following consultation within the local supply chain, we consider that further savings are achievable by bundling projects together, maximising the benefits of modularising key elements of the building and in turn delivering outstanding learning spaces within each Client’s budget.

Aside from the clear budget and space advantages outlined above, what’s great about the scheme is that whenever it’s shown to a Client or Consultant with young children, their eyes light up and they give a little nod as though imagining their child exploring the amazing experience that the design delivers and our approach to Early Years design is already being embraced by a number of local authorities, with deliverability being validated by national contractors.

For further information please contact:

Fraser McQuarrie MRICS
Tel: 0141 241 4600


Mark Ellson
Tel: 0141 204 2080