Changing lifestyles and working environments make it that children spend increasingly more time at school. Accordingly, the school building and the relevant open space are not only learning but also important living spaces...
Disabled-accessible playground redesign in Hoyerswerda
By Lothar Köppel (landscape architect)
During the rebuilding of the special school in Hoyerswerda, particular emphasis was placed on ensuring that the building itself was readily accessible for the disabled but the outdoor areas and playground were largely ignored in this respect. Thanks to the tireless commitment of the school's sponsors and following eight years of preparation, it finally proved possible, in the face of considerable opposition, to transform the monotonous and lifeless playground into a disabled-accessible site for the more than 150 pupils with multiple disabilities.
A team led by the project's landscape architect Lothar Köppel held consultation sessions with the pupils, the teachers and negotiated with the various official bodies ‒ something that proved to be not without its problems.
It was first necessary to make the sponsors of the project aware of the provisions of the German equal opportunities for those with disabilities legislation (BGG) and the building regulations of the State of Saxony, whereby all public structures ‒ such as schoolyards ‒ must be designed so that they are disabled-accessible.
Initial drafts for the project were submitted and these gradually met with increasing approval. Problems with the site and identification of boundaries meant that the size of the available area was limited ‒ to the benefit of the car parking spaces required for public buildings.
After appropriate compromises with regard to the planning concept had been made, the next hurdle, that of the limited funding, had to be overcome. Again, this meant that restrictions had to be imposed with regard to the play equipment and the play value of the site. Despite this, thanks to experience and in-depth knowledge of the valid standards and regulations, it was possible to develop a plan for the realisation of the project within the provided maximum budget of €212,000 (including VAT, ancillary costs and fees).
It was by no means easy under these circumstances to provide as much play value as possible. In the case of most playground projects, the costs are usually split 80% for landscaping work and 20% for play equipment. As the play equipment was to have absolute priority in the case of this project, 50% only of the budget was earmarked for landscaping work and pathway construction and the other 50% assigned to the play equipment. With these financial curbs in view, the first three of a total of six construction phases were undertaken.
The net construction costs, including those for the installation of play equipment, were €115.00/m² (excluding VAT).
The plan provided for the positioning of several different functional sites next to each other ‒ activity areas with exercise play equipment, rest zones, modelled natural-like play areas, natural play areas, sand play equipment and exercise areas ‒ all these were given priority. This meant that it was possible to gradually add various pieces to the jigsaw over the following years.
During the work undertaken in 2017, asphalt was removed from a larger area to provide a site that could be redesigned for play equipment.
The existing still young trees were preserved and carefully integrated in the various functional areas, which meant that no large-scale clearance work was required.
Using different forms of ground coverage, a readily recognisable guidance system based on a two-senses principle (e.g. using sight, feeling and/or hearing) has been constructed. Also used for this purpose was coloured material, such as black asphalt, red rubber granules, green grass, brown bark mulch and grey paving slabs. Subsequent users will thus be able to orientate themselves with the help of their senses of touch, sight and even hearing:
- Soft, red rubber surfaces = safe or fall-attenuated zones
- Contrasting dark, hard asphalt surfaces = fully secure pathways that can be used to reach the intensive play areas
- Wood chip surfaces (with limited access) = low maintenance, fall-attenuated play zones
- Bark mulch = planted areas
- The edges of turfed areas along the pathways = guidance aids
- Paving slab rows serve to separate different materials and act as internal guidance aids
- Blue and yellow play equipment
The resultant guidance system is equivalent to that specified in German standard DIN 18040-3; hence, no further elements were required.
The soil removed during the various excavation activities was used for the modelling of the functional areas, so none of this had to be removed from site. It was used, for example, to construct a ramp-like climbing and sliding hill with guard stones and handrails that rises to a height of 1.5 metres.
An elevated seated access in conformity with DIN 33942 allows disabled users to access the 1.5-metre-wide slide that was already in place.
During the second construction phase, disabled-accessible ascending and descending structures are to be added to the hill to allow for a quick turnaround in play activities. A wheelchair descent system is also to be put in place to bring these back down to the ground. There is a wheelchair stairway next to the slide so that wheelchair users can climb up the hill without disturbing the surface. The slopes have been stabilised by planting local shrubs. These are also used for the optical demarcation of the play area. The new play hill helps structure the site and provides for both visual and acoustic screening of the planned adjacent car park ‒ it should also prevent exhaust emissions reaching the play area.
In the central section of the redesigned playground there is a disabled-accessible sand play area constructed from spectacular, highly tactile recycled materials. Support-boards and steel sand play tables suitable for those in wheelchairs ensure everyone can enjoy themselves. An awning has been erected over the already existing sand play area to provide shade.
Like the rays of a star, other areas extend out from the central site with seating (including wheelchair bays) designed for physical movement ‒ something that the team decided was necessary to provide for the release of aggression of those using the playground.
There is a semi-circular swing forest with various disabled-suitable equipment, such as a hammock swing, basket swing, three-person swing, armchair swing ‒ the angled arrangement of the elements allows those using them to see and communicate with each other.
Specially developed hand-rockers with arched handles can be operated individually or in groups by hand or counter-pressure. The parallel positioning encourages competitiveness and thus offers increased play value for those with disabilities.
A bench mounted on springs provides for rocking as well as rest and is popular with both young and old. Foldable side access points make it possible to incorporate assistive devices, such as wheelchairs.
One of the high points of the playground is a roundabout that can be used by everyone, including wheelchair users. This equipment was originally developed in the 1980s and is now an increasingly popular standard feature of many playgrounds. At one and the same time, more than ten children, with and without disabilities, in wheelchairs and with walking frames, can use the roundabout that is level with the ground either while standing or sitting. There is a safety bar that only needs to be raised to bring the roundabout to a standstill ‒ a canopy that moves with it provides for shade and protection against rain.
One area contains interconnected rocker seats that can be used in many ways. Users, depending on the level of their abilities, can use these to turn and rock safely. Here again, the accent is on disabled-suitability combined with functionality.
A balancing trail that extends across the site represents a particular challenge to children and adults alike. This connects the asphalted school yard with the new playground. The various lengthy balancing elements, mainly made of robinia wood, create a track that it takes all senses to master. There are hand ropes to provide help where needed. This continuous play feature offers a great deal of play satisfaction while promoting the skills of users.
Where feasible, play equipment has been made of low-maintenance metal. A complementary colour scheme ensures that these are integrated in the guidance system.
The various play areas are separated by natural-like planted beds. The way that equipment has been constructed keeps the need for maintenance to a minimum.
Thanks to appropriate professional planning and supervision of the construction work, the playground was approved by the regulatory bodies and found to conform to all safety requirements. Compliance with the relevant standards and guidelines, such as EN DIN 1176, DIN 33942, DIN 18034 and DIN 18040-3, was confirmed and documented by external playground inspectors.
Professional planning and supervision of sites intended to be disabled-accessible (from phase 1 as defined in the Regulations on Architects' and Engineers' Fees, HOAI) and appropriate realisation can reduce outgoings and facilitate the construction of features that are to be publicly used, such as school playgrounds. If the appropriate specialist knowledge is applied during the planning phase, such projects can be achieved cost-effectively and provide a high play value for disabled users.
Disabled-suitable play facilities ensure that everyone can join in; they stimulate the senses and thus enhance well-being and quality of life.
Disabled-accessible play and leisure areas, particularly those out-of-doors, promote inclusion in our society.
It is in our minds that true free accessibility for all takes its starting point.
Lothar Köppel (www.la-koeppel.de)
ESF Emsland Spiel- und Freizeitgeräte GmbH & Co KG
Images: Landschaftsarchitekturbüro Köppel