October 1, 2012

Teach The Children Well: The Chesapeake Child Development Center by Elliott + Associates

Rand Elliott has innovated yet again at the Chesapeake Energy Corporation in Oklahoma City. The 111-acre campus has been fertile ground for the Interior Design Hall of Fame member. To date, across his 23-year relationship with the client, the Elliott + Associates Architects principal has completed 20 projects there, among them a fitness-center extension, a café, and a striking—yes, striking—parking garage, in addition to myriad office structures. For his most recent contribution, Elliott tapped his inner kid to create the Chesapeake Child Development Center, a 63,000-square-foot wonderland fostering curiosity and fun.

With room for 250 children, aged from 6 weeks to 5 years, who are selected by lottery from the families of company employees, the center is notable as not only a vibrant design but also as a powerful recruiting tool.

Chesapeake wanted more than just a childcare and play facility; it envisioned the building as a model early-learning center. To achieve this, the company hired a consulting firm specializing in child development, with whom Elliott collaborated during the conception phase of the project. “I asked the consultants to send me every book they read to kids,” he says. “Boxes came and I read almost everything. It helped get my mind around what it’s like to be a child.” So serious was the architect about expressing the importance of scale and size that he made his first presentation to Chesapeake’s project-planning group on his knees.

Those acquainted with Elliott know he uses “word paintings”—inspirational visual metaphors— to further flush out his design plan. Think of the building as the pages of a coloring book and Think of this place as a toy in the garden were two such images that got translated into 3-D reality. The “toy in the garden” is actually a collection of buildings nestled into a verdant hillside. The center itself is a straightforward gray-brick rectangular box striped with horizontal bands of white tile. (The brick-tile construction extends to the interior, where the stripes double as a height-measurement tool.) Additional rectangular structures housing mechanical systems are clad in Kelly green, royal blue, and Big Bird yellow aluminum composite panels; clustered around the central building, they create a vivid color-block composition in the landscape.

Elliott divided the interior of the center into four primary color–coded quadrants organized by age—infants, 1- to 2-year-olds, and 3- to 5-year-olds—plus one for staff facilities. Each quadrant revolves around its own central corridor that anchors classrooms, all of which open onto external courtyards. He supplemented the corridor colors with floor graphics that familiarize children with traffic related symbols: arrows and wavy, double, and broken lines. Finally, all the quadrants are linked by a transverse corridor: a 180-footlong bolt of sunny yellow that not only bridges the site’s grade change, but also provides an indoor play ramp.

Pragmatically, the 24 classrooms are designed to universal standards making it easy to accommodate differing age distributions within each year’s enrollment. The key, Elliott explains, “is a flexible core allowing us to change out restroom fixtures—lower or higher sinks, for example—as the population changes.” The classrooms adhere to aesthetic standards, too. Each is like a little house in a neighborhood with its own identifying letter, welcoming canopy, and, at the threshold, a “final hug” bench where parents and children say goodbye. Inside, grosgrain ribbons flutter from the exposed joists overhead. “Ceilings were an important piece of the puzzle since kids spend a lot of time on the floor looking up,” Elliott says. “The ribbons help mitigate the scale, and their movement from the air-conditioning adds energy.” When it comes to expending energy of their own, the children can climb up to the loft each classroom has for additional play space.

True to the center’s exuberant spirit, Elliott left no surface untouched, injecting good cheer at every opportunity. Case in point: The wall lining the long yellow ramp, where he punched out portholes to overlook a courtyard; its ceiling is further detailed with round skylights, chrome-lined to be especially reflective. “The kids love to dance in and out of the shadows,” notes Rand. “They learn that shadows move.” He even gave the tykes a trio of corrugated polycarbonate sheds where starter scooters are stowed.

Color abounds in the lobby, too, which doubles as an assembly room. Elliott cut the rubber flooring in a Piet Mondrian like grid and continued the pattern up the walls with paint. It’s here that parents and children get perhaps their first taste of contemporary design: blocky lounge chairs by Niels Bendtsen mingle with simple foam cubes by Quinze & Milan. In the clinic, kids, seated in sky-blue Verner Panton chairs, are soothed by walls hung with cloud photographs and ceilings spangled with heavenly graphics. The subtle—and perhaps not so subtle—lesson here and throughout? Design matters.

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