At this year's SIA Architectural Design Awards, PCF Sparkletots at Punggol North, a childcare centre by Laud Architects, clinched the design award in the Institutional Projects – Educational and Community Buildings category.

(ST Photo: Gin Tay)

It is difficult to hate going to school when it looks like a spaceship on the outside. Plus, once you enter, you are greeted by playgrounds, water and sand play areas, and trampolines.

On a school day, the three-storey, 8,400 sq m PCF Sparkletots in Punggol North is abuzz with activities.

As the pre-school operator's first and largest Early Years Centre, it is designed to take in more than 1,000 children from two months to four years old. The building opened in May last year after an 11-month construction period.

Designing a childcare centre for so many children was a challenge.

Mr Ho Tzu Yin, 46, deputy managing director at Laud Architects, which is behind the centre's design, says: "No one had done such a large childcare centre before and there was no benchmark, so we did a whole series of user experience studies. It was a steep learning curve."

(ST Photo: Gin Tay)

The first thing Mr Ho, who is married but does not have children, had to address was traffic flow and how to ease the morning and evening peak hour traffic without causing congestion on the narrow roads around the centre.

The solution was to use a circular building design, which allows cars to enter from one gate, drive around to drop off or pick up and exit from another gate. Hence the spaceship-like exterior was conceived.

Inside, classrooms occupy the exterior ring on the first and second floors. Mosaic floor tiles in the colours of the rainbow differentiate the rooms meant for infants, toddlers and nursery-aged children.

A dining area takes up the middle section of the building, flanked by three rooms – for culinary, music and art classes – which have sliding doors that can be opened to form a central multi-purpose hall for bigger events.

A skylight in the middle of the dining area lets in natural light and ventilation to keep the space cool without the use of air-conditioning.

(ST Photo: Gin Tay)

Directly above it on the second floor is a garden, the centrepiece of the building. During wet weather, rain falls from an opening in the roof onto the plants in the garden, forming a gentle waterfall.

Multiple play areas are on the third floor and two sloping ramps connect the different levels.

The jury for the SIA awards felt the shape and scale of the dome are imaginative for the children and the space is well designed to serve the needs of its users.

In some ways, Mr Ho says, the building is designed and segmented just like a pizza. Classrooms can be quarantined from the rest of the common area, should there be a need for disease control.

He says teachers have found that the children are friendlier and more open to waving at visitors, who can see much of the space without having to come too near to the kids.

"It's probably the first time a child comes into contact with any design architecture, so to be able to make a space that is comfortable and conducive for them is wonderful," he says.

Written by Michelle Ng for The Straits Times.