A tree-top education

21 Sep 2012

A school in the shade of the plane-trees has been created by Tectoniques

The Jean Carrière nursery school in Nimes (southern France) is located in the Haute Magaille neighbourhood, south-east of the city centre. Existing large plane trees form a remarkable framework of greenery, create a warm atmosphere, and act as natural climate regulators. The scheme proposed by Tectoniques in association with Atelier GA, preserves most of them and associates them actively with the architecture.

The second major factor concerns the habitability of the site, which is subject to a major constraint related to drainage. The street that runs alongside the scheme is a storm water run-off corridor. The flood risk prevention regulations put in place by the City of Nimes limits occupation of the ground floor and require the classrooms to be placed on the first upper floor.

This arrangement, which is quite atypical for a nursery school, is turned to advantage by the architects, who propose a building that is suspended in the foliage of the plane trees. From the classrooms, the children have an unusual pleasant view of the school's natural setting.

As a result, the architecture is unique among the design schemes produced by the firm. The building seems to float a few metres above the ground, like a vessel hovering at the height of the roofs of the surrounding houses.

In order to reduce the mass and impact of the scheme, the building is broken down into four volumes, which seem to slide between the trees. These volumes are occupied by the classrooms and the leisure area, and rest on a series of solid stone walls and lines of slender metal columns. This heavy-light contrast is one of the distinguishing features of the scheme.

The cross-shaped plan allows simple, clearly visible operation. The circulation areas are not just ordinary corridors. They are treated like habitable areas, widely open to the landscape, with views in all four directions. The partitions between the classrooms and the circulation areas are partly glazed, to allow through views from one external wall to the other. The internal atmosphere is similar to an open-plan office area, as opposed to the conventional type of corridor confined between enclosed classrooms.

The scheme's environmental objective is one of the requirements stipulated in the brief, but it also corresponds to the architects' habitual general motivations. The Jean Carrière school meets the low energy consumption building criteria, and it has BBC-Effinergie certification.

It has also received the "label Or" (Gold Label) certification of the Bâtiments Durables Méditerranéens association for sustainable building. The architecture's "passive" behaviour is fundamental for adapting to the Nimes climate, and the scheme's architectural style is mainly a result of this bioclimatic concern.

Apart from acting a natural 'air conditioner', the existing trees form a distinctive feature, with greenery as the school's external setting. In this scheme, which makes reference to the idea of a tree-house, the landscaping has a special role. 

Since the site is liable to flooding, the buildings have to be raised by around one metre and an inaccessible retention pond has to be excavated in the plot. Above all, the landscaping scheme aims to satisfy the resulting topographical requirements, while keeping the existing trees and preserving a maximum surface area of schoolyard in this cramped plot.

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