WellStar – The Learning Academy
As a healthcare system frequently recognized on FORTUNE magazine’s 100 Best Companies List and as a great place to work by Working Mother Magazine, AARP, and National Association of Female Executives (NAFE), providing convenient on-site child care has been an integral component of the benefits offered to employees. So, when a planned hospital expansion conflicted with the site of the former child care center, a steering committee began searching for a new location. Utilizing a narrow lot adjacent to the employee parking deck, the design team was tasked to envision a new “world class” child care center. The challenge of providing a secured, covered access for parents via the employee parking deck, while at the same time, allowing access for non-employees (i.e. spouses, grandparents, other caregivers and guests) was further exacerbated by a steeply sloping site. The challenges of providing secure entry, welcoming classrooms, and imaginative play spaces, all over multiple levels would ultimately become design opportunities.
Arriving under a covered walkway, the first point of entry at the new child care center is a light-filled two-story lobby. Creating a unified entry point, the design team leveraged this space to celebrate the multi-level solution. The focal point of the lobby is the Reading Stair with terraced, amphitheater seating which can be used for classroom gatherings or small reading groups. While the majority of the center has wood-like LVT flooring, the area next to the Reading Stair is a carpet tile composition referencing grass, river rocks, stepping stones. Complimentary cushions invite children to sit on the wood stairs.
The entire lobby volume is brightly lit and surrounded by a generous expanse of curtainwall. The glazing wraps the north elevation, extending to the ceiling, providing glimpses of the sky. In the reading area, the direct light of late afternoon is modulated by wooden vertical fins on the exterior of the building, minimizing glare, and gradually opening to reveal the interior beyond.
The lobby ceiling is a dynamic expression of the roof form that continues into Movement Matters. Located on the second level, Movement Matters is an indoor play room with a climbing wall and ballet bars. A full wall of glazing in Movement Matters overlooks the lobby atrium and encourages visual play between the spaces.
All classrooms have abundant natural light and expansive views to the exterior. Coupling of classrooms with shared changing stations / child restrooms provides an efficient layout and allows optimal visibility for teachers.
The design team selected a neutral color palette with selected pops of color for finishes and furniture. Providing a neutral palette allows the children, their artwork, toys and materials to color to the space.
The site challenges and program requirements led not only to a multi-story building, but also a multi-level playground. Integral slides and climbing ropes on terraced hills create an active playscape which becomes an extension of the interior programming.
Design ChallengeThe advantage of the selected site was the adjacency to an existing employee parking deck and existing on-grade public parking. What soon emerged as the major challenges, were the limited footprint and the steeply sloped grades, seemingly at odds with the given program.
One of the early challenges presupposed two entries, separated by three stories. One entrance was required at grade, and one was envisioned three stories above. The entry above (for employees) was imagined as a bridge connecting the new building to the existing parking garage, all above an active entry drive. Studies by the design team quickly eliminated the need for a costly bridge, by providing a more direct and nearly on-grade covered walkway to a secondary parking structure. This was accomplished by successfully acquiring a variance to the setback, and by carefully placing the First Floor elevation, so as to remain accessible to existing parking.
With accessible entries required on multiple levels, the design team ultimately settled on a three story building solution which utilized a partial floorplate at the Ground Floor and a larger footprint for lobby and classrooms on First and Second Floors. By working with the existing grades, the design team maintained access to parking, maximized natural light to the classrooms, and helped to minimize the cost of site excavation and retaining walls.
The built design allows for an unstaffed Lower Lobby, as the entry point for spouses, grandparents and guests, who then make their way to the First Floor via elevator or stair. The First Floor is the main entry for parents who are employed by the hospital system. Both populations are greeted by a staffed Welcome Desk in a spacious two-story lobby. The Reading Stair activates the space and encourages families to linger, perhaps for a quiet story.
On the exterior of the building, one of the greatest challenges was providing a safe, functional and sizeable outdoor play space for the children. With the entry to the building at the rear of the site, the team was required to seek a variance to place the largest of the playgrounds in the front, facing the neighborhood street. Quickly, a design driver emerged for working with the grade changes, to provide an area of active play for the oldest of children. Utilizing nearly the full length of the site, the design team sculpted a dramatic playscape by terracing the playground and integrating embankment slides as transition elements between the three levels of play. The result is a playground that is easily supervised, allows for visual connections between age groups, and provides active and passive elements of play for children of all ages.
Physical ContextLocated in an almost urban healthcare campus, yet adjacent to a historic residential district, the design team was careful to present the neighborhood with a respectful solution. The resulting two-story street façade is modest in scale, and pulls from the colors and textures of campus buildings. From behind an unfolding “wood like” screen wall emerges the playground stair. The exterior stair connects all three levels of play, and activates the façade with the blur of children in motion.
Despite requiring a variance to place the playground at the front of the site, (there was precedence across the street, where a Catholic School also utilized a play space fronting the local street.) the simple punched windows, colorful playscape and generous landscaping present an attractive image that respected building setbacks and was well received by the community.
As a facility designed for children, safety & security are paramount in the design. As a result, throughout the project, there is a delicate balance between creating a feeling of openness and maintaining security. As an example, the entirety of the playground is surrounded with a concrete wall, topped by a mesh like fence. The lower portion is opaque, for safety, and to block views, however, the fencing preserves views to the trees and the sky.
In addition to security, there was significant focus on the sensory experiences of play. The playground was equipped with slides, sensory responsive play structures, musical instruments, sand, and natural materials like hand hewn cedar tree trunks and water. Providing adequate shade was of the utmost importance. Shading utilized trees, solar sails, and the building itself, especially for an infant play area, with complete building cover.