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15.04.2021 - Ausgabe: 2/2021

The Bärenhöhle day-care centre: designed to be a world of experience both indoors and outdoors

By Ralph Thater architect’s office

© Architekturbüro Ralph Thater

The Bärenhöhle day-care centre in the East Frisian joint community of Esens was designed to accommodate seven groups. Between the Esens-Nord school centre and the new Armenland development area, up to 130 children can be cared for under one roof in four regular groups (two of which are integrative) and two crèche groups. In addition, there is an after-school care centre with a maximum of 20 primary school age children.

The central two-storey forum area can also be used to host larger events and has a special central significance. 

Due to the building’s good fire protection and a sufficient number of escape and emergency routes, the inner area of the building, including the corridors, can also be used for playing. After all, especially in this coastal area (3.5 km off the North Sea), the weather is not always nice. 

Numerous seats and hiding places as well as a slide leading parallel to the central staircase from the first floor to the forum encourage the children to explore their surroundings. In addition, a close-meshed stainless steel net made by Carlstahl was stretched over the entire clear height of the upper floor, providing both fall protection and numerous visual connections. 

The mesh structure plays an equally important role for the building’s lighting concept. Skylights in the exterior walls effectively illuminate the central space. They are complemented by large windows in the main façades. In the outdoor area facing the south side, additional awnings, which can be removed in winter, allow for adjustment to seasonal conditions with little technical effort. Weather permitting, the varied outdoor area invites children to play and romp around. The spacious activity zones are designed to cater for the needs of the different age groups. The outdoor area can be accessed directly from the individual group rooms. The outdoor area encloses the building from four sides, allowing the children to interact between the groups as they play. In addition, two emergency slides lead from the upper floor to the outdoor area, thus bridging the gap between the indoor and outdoor areas in a playful way. The design of the outdoor area leaves plenty of space for free, unstructured play and thus reflects the vastness of the East Frisian region. Thanks to its sophisticated design, the Proludic play equipment is a valuable addition to the play area and offers varied play and coordination opportunities for the children. At the same time, there is enough space to play ball games on natural grass. 


Design and materials 

The building’s solid construction of concrete and sand-lime bricks stands out with its exposed concrete ceilings.

The protruding structural components made of glued-laminated timber (glulam) are also designed as exposed timber components on the inside, thus contrasting with the exposed concrete ceilings. Alternating materials and colours produce a truly striking and memorable building. This is enhanced by the use of different types of plaster and a total of eight bright colours and three neutral / achromatic colours such as grey and white, which contrast with each other.  

In the outdoor area, the colours of the play equipment blend in with the overall colour scheme. The bright colours of the toddler swings and of the multi-play climbing structure alternate with neutral colours. The materials chosen for the play equipment, predominantly steel and composites, keep the colours from fading in the long term, and, on the other hand, ensure long-lasting stability and durability even with heavy use. Playground equipment for the toddler area has been specifically installed next to the entrance area. Two group swings, varied play areas for crawling and exploring as well as a sandpit appeal particularly to the target group of crèche children under three years of age. A special highlight is the purpose-built Bobby Car race track, which even features its own small road signs and zebra crossings. Throughout the outdoor area, group swings, sand play areas, a climbing course, seesaws and spring rockers encourage the children to play in the open air. And when midsummer finally arrives on the North Sea coast, the water feature with an Archimedes’ screw will cool the kids off. 


The architectural theory 

In the planning of the structure, the focus has always been on a straightforward and compact design that allows for an energy-optimised building and follows the guiding principle of form follows function. The projecting and recessed sections of the building are reflected in both the exterior façade and the interior of the building and are used as spaces for the individual groups.

The energy-efficient design of the building (passive house building envelope) and the use of renewable energies (such as geothermal energy by means of heat pumps or solar energy by means of photovoltaic systems) make the building fit for the future. Consequently, the design concept of form follows function can be translated into a contemporary concept of form follows function and energy.


Child-friendly acoustics

In terms of both its visual and acoustic qualities, the building has been designed with its young users in mind. Room acoustics and especially the reverberation time are important criteria for day-care centres for children.

The latter should be kept to a minimum for children and educators in order to avoid unpleasant background noise and to increase the intelligibility of sounds and speech. To further optimise the room acoustics, we decided to use acoustic elements that, when attached to ceilings and walls, provide a visual contrast to the background. 



According to the architectural concept, it is worth striving towards creating an architecture that, through many visual connections, details and different emerging surfaces, enables the viewer to gain new impressions and experiences that have not been perceived before, even when walking through a building several times.

Architecture should always be a special experience, as people are shaped by their surroundings and environment.

The added value of detailed and elaborate solutions is often dismissed at the preliminary planning stage and not sufficiently considered. When developing my design concepts, I therefore look for ways to produce solutions that are rich in detail and economical, bringing the building to life and making it an experience for the viewer. Another factor that has a decisive impact on the design is always energy efficiency. It is becoming increasingly important and is therefore a key factor in the building development, as well as for the choice of building materials, system components and energy sources used.

In the case of the day-care centre built here, the comprehensive contract and the extremely motivated client made it possible to hold the planning “reins” in all decisive fields (inside and outside) and to actually implement the planned concept. The “Bärenhöhle” in Esens is a modern day-care centre for children that is convincing in every respect. It was only 2.5 years after the contract was awarded that the day-care centre could be opened in September 2020. The schedule was tight and despite the coronavirus pandemic, the new showpiece was completed as planned. “The crisis has only had a limited impact on the construction. On the whole, however, all the building work was completed according to the construction schedule,” says Ralph Thater. “With this day-care centre, the joint community of Esens has entered a new era,” were the words of joint community mayor Harald Hinrichs at the opening ceremony on 12 September 2020. 


Further information:

Architekturbüro Ralph Thater

Funnix 4

26409 Wittmund - Funnix

Phone: 04467 91 06 19



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