It also won a Millennium Product award, reports Carolyn O'Grady
St Alban's Catholic primary school's new nursery came from the skies. Lowered by crane, it arrived as three prefabricated modules which were lifted on to prepared ground in a small garden area, just outside the main school.
However, this nursery isn't the normal run of modular, prefabricated buildings. Brightly coloured, it is a permanent structure which contains numerous imaginative features. These include large amounts of storage space, child-level windows, a shower unit, windows that slide open to provide access to the outside and a covered space in which parents can wait.
Last year the Lilliput Nursery (its trademark name) was accorded Millennium Product status by the Design Council, which described it as "an outstanding innovative product; providing a stimulating educational environment from a child's viewpoint".
St Alban's primary school, in Harlow, Essex, had decided to add a nursery following a report by the Office for Standards in Education in September l997, which pointed out that children's attainment on entry was low. "We thought a nursery might help the situation," says the headteacher, Bozena Laraway.
The grant-maintained school applied for funding and was given pound;55,000 from the Department for Education and Employment for the project. It was a small sum with which to build a nursery to take 15 children. Enter Cottrell and Vermeulen, a firm of architects based in London, which had been working with nursery and primary schools for five years.
The company had previously been ap-proached by several schools who wanted classrooms "on a shoestring", says Richard Cottrell, and had turned them down because they couldn't see how it could be done well and cheaply. "When we were approached by St Alban's we began to think that perhaps we should consider a different way of building."
With the Government's planned expansion of nursery education, a prefabricated but permanent building began to look like the answer and one which might help many schools. Economies of scale make it a cheaper solution than a traditionally built nursery and, once the modules are designed and the production line in place, they can be quickly installed.
Enter now another player, Portakabin, maker of mainly prefabricated temporary structures. Approached by Cottrell and Vermeulen, the company took little persuading that the Lilliput Nursery could become a standard product.
"Our hardest task was to get the DfEE to let us use the money for a modular type of construction," says Mr Cottrell. "We had to convince them that this would be of a different quality to the standard Portakabin."
With the department satisfied, the design phase began. The architects worked with the school and also with Mark Dudek, an expert in child environments at the University of Sheffield's School of Architecture. What emerged were three modules containing a sheltered external porch, where parents can wait for their children, the main room, a large open space with abundant built-in storage and seating, an area with toilets and child-level sinks, a small quiet room and a covered play area with wooden decking and storage. Inside, the predominant colours are blue and yellow; outside they are blue and orange.
It took about five weeks to prepare the ground and then the modules were lowered on to the foundations, which took less than two hours. After a further week for connecting the services, laying floors and bits of making good, the school had its nursery. A similar sized building constructed traditionally would have taken three to four months of extensive work on-site after the ground had been prepared, says Mr Cottrell.
Danuta Miklewska has taught in the nursery since it opened in September last year. "Everything has been thought of from the point of view of children," she says. "The windows are child height, and the children love the built-in benches. There is a fantastic amount of storage space, including compartments which the children can reach and others which are higher.
"You can extend the classroom by just sliding open the glass doors, which gives you an outside classroom, part of which is covered."
The potential of this sort of building doesn't stop with nurseries. Cottrell and Vermeulen have now designed a primary, key stage 1 (infants) classroom for 30 children for another Essex primary school. Like the Lilliput Nursery, the Akademy classroom will be another standard product available from Portakabin. It is also suitable for key stage 2 (junior age) children.
The classroom is similar in style to the nursery. It has large amounts of built-in storage, child-level windows and built-in benches plus high and low-level display areas. It features an open area for general teaching, a "wet area" for science and art and a quiet area for reading or working at computers. One difference is that it is designed so that it can be linked to existing primary school premises.
Prefabs, it seems, may be due for a change of image from the stereotype of tackiness and short-termism.
* The Lilliput Nursery for 15 children, covering 85 square feet, costs pound;55,000; for 30 children (113 square metres) it costs pound;72,000. An Akademy classroom for 30 children (106 square metres) costs pound;65,000. These prices include the building, design services, fittings, built-in storage and seating, heating, lighting and plumbing, but not preparing the foundations, connection of services and, in the case of the Akademy, linking the construction to the school.
Schools can tailor the arrangment of the modules and interior features to their own needs and have a choice of colours and features. Modules can normally be supplied within a few weeks.
* Portakabin, Huntington, York YO3 9PT. Tel: 01904 611655