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07-20-21 | Feature

Sustainable Preschool

and Nature Center
by Danielle Cleveland, ASLA, LPA, Inc.

Landscape Architects with LPA of Irvine, CA were called to design the open space pictured at the Environmental Nature Center and preschool in Newport Beach, CA. There a dry creek used for sustainable stormwater treatment education doubles as a play element.
A custom laser cut metal panel wall separates the learning area and exterior parking/drop off area while carrying the nature-based theme. The roof is made of exposed architectural glue-lam beams with a circular opening in the standing seam metal roof, adding to the open-air environment.
A custom 12' rope climbing web by Incord provides gross motor skill development. This area also features a rainchain and rock basin as part of their sustainability focus.
The roughly half-acre play area consists of a variety of natural materials such as boulders, logs, and tree stumps to provide opportunities for kids to explore and play. Every component of the outdoors was designed with nature at the forefront of the learning experience. A 5' embankment slide is incorporated into the hillside to expand the play area and utilize the topography on the site.
An organic garden provides a hands-on experience raising crops and includes composting area where plant waste can be collected, composted, and ultimately reused. To collect rainwater from the roof through the use of a rain chain is a large planter pot filled with boulders seen in the background.
Located behind the Center are the butterfly house, communal fire pit and amphitheater, creating a unique outdoor classroom environment for use by many of the ENC's community programs.
A path running through the site resembles a vine while the spaces that stem from it are designed in the shape of leaves.
The three main outdoor learning spaces are designed and named to celebrate national parks in California; Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Sequoia.

Situated on five acres, dedicated to 15 California plant communities, the Environmental Nature Center (ENC) and Preschool in Newport Beach, CA, was designed by Landscape Architects with LPA of Irvine, CA to teach visitors about native plants and their importance to biodiversity, as well as rainwater collection and reuse. As you enter the campus, you are immediately greeted by elements of the regional landscape including a stream, and a nature walk for visitors to explore. Every component of the outdoors was designed to put nature at the forefront of the learning experience.
Planting throughout the site is comprised solely of California native plants and provides habitat and food sources that attract wildlife. Traditional irrigation systems were eliminated and replaced with volunteer hand-watering to support the plantings. Once the plantings are established, watering is provided only through rainwater or coastal marine layer precipitation. These native plants add seasonal color and texture and provide habitats for native birds and insects. Over the last 10 years, the ENC has been home to more than 140 species of permanent and migratory birds which are supported by the preschool.
Rainwater received on-site is treated as an educational tool and illustrates how this resource makes its way from the building site to the ocean. Single-sloped roofs capture rainwater and channel it via rain chains into rock basins. From the rock basins, water is channeled into bioswales where the water is naturally treated and clarified by plant materials before it leaves the site to recharge aquifers and ultimately make its way to Newport Bay. These sustainable strategies are shared with visitors through interpretive signage throughout the campus.

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The outdoor sections are designed to provide various types and scales of learning spaces. Outside of its three formal classrooms are blended outdoor learning spaces designed, named, and inspired by three of California's national parks: Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Sequoia. Students and visitors can understand and appreciate the park's different natural characteristics, features, planting, textures, and wildlife even if they have never visited these destinations. The Joshua Tree learning space is designed using tactile elements, including sand and movable boulders that resemble the desert setting and iconic rock features of that area. A rope climbing structure gives the kids the ability to view the space from a different vantage point, while supporting the growth of the student's gross motor skills.
The children enter the Yosemite outdoor classroom beneath a woven reed tunnel which leads to wood decking and a creek. They can interact with and manipulate water to understand seasonal flow and drought conditions, climb a man-made hill to sit on log benches or shimmy down a slide integrated into the slope of the area's mounds.
Further down the main pathway, the Sequoia classroom is surrounded by dense redwood trees. These trees are a special feature of the site since they are not commonly found in southern California. A treehouse structure becomes a performance space as well as a flexible
fort/hut where kids can use fabric to create tents, or separate rooms. Old tree stumps found on the site are used for impromptu seating or conversation circles for story-time as well as logs for construction or for rough-hewn
balance beams.
A paved tricycle track winds its way around each of the outdoor classroom spaces so the different regions based on the national parks can be linked and enjoyed. Small details of the site design such as animal prints in the concrete paving of the bike path, slides and seating built into the sloping site and wooden bridges that cross the dry creek provide children with an intuitive way to interact with the natural textures, patterns and colors around them as a part of their daily rituals, classrooms experience and circulation routes. Additional outdoor learning spaces incorporate an art classroom, growing grounds that allow for hands-on experience cultivating food and a composting area where food waste can be collected, composted and ultimately reused.
A butterfly house, communal fire pit and amphitheater create additional outdoor classroom environments for use by many of the organization's community programs. The spaces support the education of ecological responsibility and the practice of environmental stewardship while simultaneously meeting the pedagogical needs for a learning environment.
The primary goal for the project team was to foster community engagement, sustainability, and education, recognizing the larger goals of the ENC. The designers and client were intent on making this project site self-sustaining and immersive, while giving back to the community and the environment without interrupting it. The result is a place for our youngest minds to learn and the community to enjoy, surrounded by the beauty of the natural ecosystems.
Children and adults alike can feel the sand between their fingers, listen to the water running in the creek and experience the cooling shade of the towering Sequoia trees. With everything meant to be touched and manipulated, the ever-changing landscape allows visitors to leave their mark on the space and create their own environment.
Both the Nature Center and Preschool are LEED NC Platinum certified. According to the ENC website they are the first LEED Platinum building in Orange County, CA. The Preschool is pursuing the Living Building Challenge's Petal Certification, which would make it one of the first projects in the region to achieve this level of sustainability and healthy environments. The project has provided the community with a small jewel that recreates and features the natural environment while celebrating California's diverse ecological systems

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2021.

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