Child-centred Architecture

Arcadia Nursery provides early-years education for the children of University of Edinburgh staff and students as well as the local community. It caters for up to 113 children aged from 6 weeks to 5 years of age at the University’s King's Buildings Campus and has extensive play areas in and around mature trees.

Meeting the Brief

The Nursery was designed around the ‘free-play’ concept, which helps develop children’s confidence, independence and creativity by encouraging them to choose the activities they would like to participate in, rather than them being dictated and spaces restricted. The layout has been designed to facilitate this with opening-up between playrooms, whilst ensuring the children are safe and easily supervised. 

Each of the three age groups’ playroom is defined by a pyramidal form with raised storytelling mezzanines for the children in two and a first floor area for offices and staff and a family room in the third.

Arcadia Nursery, University of Edinburgh, interior view of timber clad room. Malcolm Fraser Architects Arcadia Nursery Photograph by Angus Bremner edit
Arcadia site and building plan sketch

CLIENT / University of Edinburgh

ARCHITECT / Malcolm Fraser Architects

COMPLETION / August 2014

Gross Internal Area / 840m2; Capacity 113 children aged from 6 weeks to five years

Brief and Construction / Offsite cross-laminated-timber and vapour-open construction; integration with garden; liberating 'free-play' planning for children.

Arcadia Nursery, University of Edinburgh. Interior view showing timber beams, shelving. Children seated at tables.Malcolm Fraser Architects Arcadia Nursery Photograph by Angus Bremner

Outdoor Access in all Seasons

Each playroom spills out to a covered terrace to allow outdoor access for the children all year round, and then into three distinct garden spaces.

Closest to the building is a structured, enclosed garden with growing beds, play structures and a natural amphitheatre; next is a more challenging, natural play area among the trees; while a raised, snaking walkway bridges to the far meadow, with wild flowers and grasses and a willow enclosure for picnics and sports.

Arcadia Nursery garden with planters and board walks. Malcolm Fraser Architects Arcadia Nursery Photograph by Angus Bremner
Arcadia Nursery, Edinburgh. Under the roof children sit on beanbags.Malcolm Fraser Architects Arcadia Nursery Photograph by Angus Bremner 2
Arcadia Nursery, Edinburgh. Garden Section 2 to 3s

Main Contractor / Balfour Beatty contract value £2.1m

MFA Team / Emma Fairhurst, Gillian Storrar, Malcolm Fraser

Structural Engineer / AED

Services / Harley Haddow

Costs / Thomson Gray

Landscape / ERZ

Plans Sections

The Benefits of Building with Natural Materials

The team sought to create a healthy, calm environment for the children. A cross-laminated timber (clt) structure provided the perfect combination of creating a warm, tactile interior while also using a natural, sustainable product that could structurally achieve the clear roof volumes required to ensure the mezzanines spaces were not compromised.

Aside from the offsite and programme efficiencies and carbon-lock it is noted that a timber environment reduces stress and promotes attention and learning, as evidenced by children’s heartbeats lowered by 8,600 per day in Austrian tests on similar buildings. The construction is vapour-open, meaning that CO2 and particulates escape as well as water vapour. Toxic materials and finishes were avoided – nothing nasty for the wee ones.

Cross-laminated timber onsite at Arcadia Nursery, Edinburgh
Cross-lamintated timber onsite at Arcadia Nursery.
Site view from above as cross-laminated timber is installed at Arcadia Nursery, University of Edinburgh. Malcolm Fraser Architects

Sustainable and energy-efficient construction

The Nursery is a very low-energy building, connected to the central University Combined Heat and Power network with natural cooling and ventilation and highly efficient lighting and equipment. The specification of all materials was carefully considered, with materials chosen that are renewable and have low embodied energy and a minimal carbon footprint.

The design stage BREEAM assessment achieved a high score of 82.2%, with material and pollution sections achieving a 100% score.

Arcadia Nursery, University of Edinburgh - exterior, road-facing.

A place to learn, play and imagine

The architect listened to all the wonderful ideas that we had... every one has come to fruition

Rhona Connell of Arcadia Nursery talks about the experience and results of the project.

Principal Awards

Edinburgh Architectural Association Wood Award, 2015


Edinburgh Architectural Association Building of the Year, 2015

Highly Commended

Scottish Design Awards, 2015

Education Building or Project

RIAS Award for Architecture, 2015

RIAS Wood for Good Award, 2015

Best use of Timber

RIAS Zero Waste Award, 2015

RIBA Award, 2015

RIAS Doolan Award, 2015

Special Mention

Further Information

Arcadia Nursery, University of Edinburgh

Schools without stress (.pdf)

Case study: Arcadia Nursery

Case study: Arcadia Nursery
Stora Enso clt

Landscape Design at Arcadia Nursery
World Landscape Design


Angus Bremner