Welcome to the eco-cubby

Yarra Road Primary School’s cubby house includes natural ventilation, rainwater tank and solar panels. It was exhibited at the Sustainable Living Festival.

It’s best to start early, and small, when it comes to (play) house design, writes Jacinta Cleary.

The pre-design phase of any new home should be extensive. Research on building materials is carried out, those new to sustainable design will bury themselves in books and magazines, drawings are made, and maybe even a model of the dwelling. Of course, a lot of these stages are skipped today, but at least some school children will be able to tell when you’re cutting corners.

When Professor Rob Adams, Director of City Design for the City of Melbourne, won a prize several years ago, he wanted the money to go towards a new interactive architecture project. Regional Arts Victoria, in collaboration with the City of Melbourne’s ArtPlay team, had an idea that triggered Adams’ imagination, one that could teach children the fundamentals of sustainability.

Eco-Cubby, now in its third year, teams architects with primary schools to plan a cubby house together. Adams says Eco-Cubby’s charm is in the hands-on learning process: “It’s about communication, working together, mathematics—what’s soft and bends, what’s hard and doesn’t.”

There’s an agenda here, after all, cubby houses have traditionally been places of play, not formal education, with the biggest reference to sustainability being the hard rubbish collection that the materials were collected from. However, incorporating smart cubby house design into the school curriculum is an interactive way to teach the basics of passive solar design and, from the look of it, is lots of fun.

Architect and school

Architect Lisa Brennan worked with grade four students at Yarra Road Primary School last year. Accustomed to working in her own practice and as a lecturer at Melbourne University, this was the first time her expertise was brought to younger students. The school was already advanced in environmental education, and cubby house design, with a treed area called the Sanctuary being a place for students to build their own cubby houses with found objects such as branches, rocks or discarded timber. The first class involved Lisa watching how the children play in the Sanctuary, where they have their own currency, trading in gum nuts.

Next, Lisa and the students pondered big questions such as where to locate the cubby? How to build it? And who will use it? Four possible sites were selected with students assessing each one according to size, view, northern orientation, current use, whether it is flat or sloped, treed, and a general feeling as to whether that site was where they’d want their cubby house.

A tranquil spot called the frog bog was selected over others such as the basketball court and oval. Over around a dozen sessions, Lisa and the students measured the area, drew a site plan, and discussed and workshopped ideas on sustainability and design including features that their cubby would include, building materials, and how to build the final design.

Students split into four groups to translate their drawings and ideas into a model; one to build the model, one for environmental considerations, another group to make the plasticine people that would be included in the model, and the final group to document the project.
The final dream cubby house model looks ideally suited to outdoor living, with lots of open windows and garden play area. The rainwater tank is made from a box and the pipe going from the roof to the tank is a drinking straw. Importantly the roof is sloping to ensure the solar panels get a good hit of sunshine every day. The plasticine people are made to scale and dressed in purple to replicate the student’s uniform.

Eco-cubby at festival

Models from last year’s participating schools were exhibited at ArtPlay in Melbourne as part of the Sustainable Living Festival in February. Geelong East Primary School added a wind turbine to their cubby house, while the water conservation message has remained strong post-drought, with all models including rainwater tanks; one of the more imaginative tanks was made from an old plastic wine glass more commonly used at picnics.

Geelong East Primary School noted that they learnt about renewable versus non-renewable energy sources, climate conditions, passive heating and cooling and orientation. Their clever design includes a main structure which is the winter cubby, where it’s warmer inside thanks to thermal mass capturing the sun. Underneath, accessed by ladders, is the shaded summer cubby, a place benefited by cooling breezes.

Hard to build
These imaginative models are one step from reality though: the building process. Regional Arts Victoria’s Emily Atkins says that only two cubby houses have been built, with the  emphasis being on the design and learning phase rather than a finished structure. While the backyard cubby house is relatively cheap to build, especially when out of the eye of authorities, these Eco-Cubby designs are subject to more stringent assessments when built at schools. “Surveying and building costs can be as much as $40,000,” she says, with the main expense being surveying.

Understandably, to build one of these dream cubbies requires some serious fundraising, often beyond what a cake or plant stall can deliver. The University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre opened their Eco-Cubby last spring, a recycled timber and mud brick structure that hit a bureaucratic snag or two during the building process. The kindergarten students made their own mud bricks with their parents, only to be told that the mud bricks were an irregular size, and couldn’t be used to build. Pre-made mud bricks were bought (which apparently weren’t that much different in size) and the old mud bricks used in the garden instead. The second cubby house, a chook shed cubby, is at Barham Primary School near Kerang, with plans for another at the Olive Phillips Kindergarten this year.

Emily says the results with just paper, cardboard, tins and pipe cleaners have been abstract enough. “They’ve displayed amazing ideas, especially in regards to sustainability.” She says that hearing kids say ‘it has to face north so that it warms the house and that’s passive ecology’ is proof enough of the program’s success.

A new batch of schools have embarked on their Eco-Cubby this year. Follow their progress at www.eco-cubby.com