The “Wellenspiel” – designing a play slope in the schoolyard of the Regenbogenschule in Wolfsburg
By Dipl. Ing. Kerstin Jablonka, Dipl. Ing. Jörg Bresser (pro garten landschaftsarchitekten)
Schoolyards are primarily places where pupils spend their time during breaks. Here they can romp around, run, play, but also sit and chill out. During breaks, children and adolescents can unleash pent-up energy.
However, also in the afternoons, after class, more and more schoolyards are open for after-school child care, which often takes place at centres attached to the school. At present, efforts are increasingly being undertaken to make schoolyards available for use by children and adolescents outside of school hours and as play and recreation areas in the afternoon.
Framework conditions and specifications
The schoolyard of the Regenbogenschule in Wolfsburg is subdivided into two areas, which are located at different levels. The upper level of the schoolyard can be accessed via the main building and the premises of the after-school care centre. The lower level of the schoolyard, which is located approximately 3.30 metres lower, can be accessed via the gymnasium and the car park. The two schoolyard areas are connected by a staircase embedded in a slope. This slope is topographically very attractive, but after years of use it posed a safety hazard. Owing to erosion, static problems occurred on permanent installations (retaining wall units, steps and path surfacing) in the peripheral areas due to shifts and subsidence. A parapet structure that was originally firmly connected to the building had become loose and had sagged. Some remaining trees stabilized the exposed soil with their stressed root system. Fence segments provisionally mitigated the risk of falls on the slope. These, however, were not intended to be a permanent solution. Playground equipment was gradually dismantled and the slope was temporarily closed.
In order to enable the site to be used again, the City of Wolfsburg decided in February 2016 to hold a planning workshop in cooperation with the School Department and the Parks Department. With the aid of such a competition procedure, a viable concept was to be developed with the aim of making the slope playable again in order to create a permanent attractive play area for the open spaces of the primary school.
The competition entry of the pro garten Landschaftsarchitekten landscape architect’s office was chosen as the winning design.
A soil investigation was provided as a preliminary expert opinion for the slope rehabilitation, which proved silty, loamy and clayey soils with moderate bearing capacity. It was recommended to avoid drainage of the upper schoolyard into the slope, to drain the precipitation water from the slope and to provide sufficient foundation beds for installations.
During the reconstruction process, the need for extensive rehabilitation of the existing rainwater drainage system on the slope also became apparent.
The specifications of the planning workshop held by the city also comprised the results of a previous student participation. Third- and fourth-graders had translated their ideas of play opportunities into models. These were made available to the competition participants.
The main idea of the design by pro garten Landschaftsarchitekten is to create a playable sea of waves that connects the upper and lower schoolyard. The slope, which forms an unused divide between the two schoolyard areas, thus becomes the playable centre of the school’s open spaces. The total planning area including the adjacent fringe areas is approximately 440 square metres.
The redesigned slope blends in like sea waves in the surf. From the lower schoolyard the waves slam into the quay of the upper schoolyard. The boundary between the play area and the lower schoolyard is formed organically; this is where the undulating waves begin. These surge up the slope and break on the straight edge of the rail in the upper schoolyard, taking up the design language of the upper schoolyard with its angled edges and lines.
Three design levels overlap in the newly created slope section of the schoolyard:
1) The slope
The slope, as the lowest level, has a largely uniform surface profile. It is the transition zone between the two schoolyards that has been made available for use.
2) The waves
The slope profile is modelled with wave-like elements of varying height and size. The uniform gradient of the slope is broken up. Play areas varying in inclination and size are created.
3) The sea monster
The monster emerges from the sea of waves as play equipment. It raises its arms out of the waves and invites children to play, climb and chill out.
The existing flight of steps, which borders the slope on the eastern side, is incorporated into the design. By demolishing the western enclosing wall of the flight of steps, the steps open up to the redesigned slope. The flight of steps interlocks with the waves of the slope. Retaining wall units as an extension of individual steps protrude into the slope like jetties in the sea as seating and play elements. The platform between the steps is extended into the slope. The existing flight of steps still provides a direct connection between the different schoolyard areas. At the same time, it leads to the playable slope. The retaining wall units as an extension of the flight of steps are continued on the lower schoolyard as a seat wall.
Engineering and material concept
The playable slope area is widened compared to the original area. In the upper schoolyard, the slope extends between 0.40 and 1.50 metres into the paving. The gradient of the upper schoolyard is altered. A counter-slope is created towards the slope. Along the transition in the existing paving, a channel with pavement drain inlets is installed as the lowest point. The surface water of both the schoolyard and the slope crown is drained to this point.
In the lower schoolyard, too, the slope is widened by approximately 1.00 – 2.50 metres into the paving. The existing enclosing walls of the slope areas are demolished. By widening the slope, a gradient ratio of approximately 1:3 is achieved, making the slope considerably flatter than before.
Terracing of the slope, which is filled and compacted with additional gravel, is provided as a sustainable measure to stabilize the slope. The playground equipment foundations spread across the slope stabilize the slope and interlock the loamy site soil with the backfill material. The deep-foundation seat walls placed at the edge of the slope provide additional stability.
The basic modulation of the slope as well as the formed waves are made of water-permeable synthetic surfacing. After dismantling the existing installations, walls, trees, bushes and the adjacent paved areas, the new slope is profiled as described above (terraced excavation and backfilling with gravel). A 30 cm thick crushed natural stone subbase is installed, which is covered with 15 cm pervious concrete. The layers of the EPDM surfacing (fall height up to 3 m) are installed on top of it. In the lower schoolyard, the EPDM surfacing is edged with a steel strip to enhance the organic form. In the upper schoolyard, the EPDM surfacing is edged with a paving strip.
The sea monster represents a multifunctional play facility. The play sculpture consists of coloured steel tubes with nets and ropes stretched between them. The steel tubes emerge from a walkable play sculpture in the centre of the facility, the sea monster’s “head”. This play sculpture is a climbable spacenet, which has wall coverings in some sections. It provides a retreat inside and can be climbed and scaled on the outside.
From this “head”, which is designed as a resting point of the structure, four ropes courses lead over the waves. The ropes courses are to be understood as tentacles of the sea monster and are composed of bent steel tubes and vertical supports. Vertical and horizontal climbing ropes and nets in different variations are stretched in and between the bent tubes and steel supports. Closed surfaces for lying or jumping as well as fixed ropes for swinging are also provided. A sliding pole completes the range.
The “Wellenspiel” project in the schoolyard of the Regenbogenschule in Wolfsburg was consistently implemented from the initial idea to the final realization.
The school and the adjacent housing estate have been given a popular and significant recreation area that encourages physical activity by providing a wide range of incentives and challenges with varying degrees of difficulty and that is a central meeting point on the school grounds. It provides challenges for children of all ages: the little have fun sliding down the EPDM waves, the middle ones test their climbing skills and the older ones laze around in the spacenets and hammocks. The many uses of this complex play facility promote a sense of community and social interaction.
The concise design has helped to create a place with a unique recognition value, which, after initial scepticism, has now also convinced the teaching staff.
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