The Architects’ Journal House of Colour competition – and the winner is…

Karen Haller 01
Karen Haller

When you see design competitions they’re typically for huge skyscrapers encased in glass and steel so it’s a rare thing to come across a competition that’s more playful and lighthearted like a children’s playhouse.

In May this year it was a real delight to see The Architects’ Journal launch a competition called ‘House of Colour’ which was sponsored by buildings materials firm James Hardie, seeking entries to design a children’s playhouse.

An architects firm I know, EPR architects, decided to take up the challenge to create a novel and inspiring concept that was also fun and delightful.

But they didn’t stop there. What I loved about EPR architects approach to this competition is they wanted to create a childrens’ playhouse that not only filled the brief but one that was fully inclusive.

As part of their mission to design an all-inclusive playhouse, a truly wonderful thing they did was approached the Royal Society for Blind Children to find out what their specific needs were in what they felt would make an inclusive playhouse. After all, what is a playground if not all children can enjoy it right…?

Because EPR knew that colour would play an important role, an EPR director who I’d met as a fellow judge for the WAN Colour in Architecture awards earlier this year brought me on board as he knew I was the right person to use colour to help create an inclusive design.

The children got involved
The children were asked to draw what they would love to see in a playhouse and they were wonderfully creative.  Two main themes emerged.  One was to have a high energy playhouse with a trampoline and the other was for a more relaxed, quiet space which showed the two sides to the children’s personality.

Creative ideas from the children at the Royal Society for Blind Children.

The vision

Using the input from the children on the kind of spaces they wanted, EPR decided they would design a spin on the classic treehouse den by creating a permeable jellyfish pavilion of hanging, swaying soft textile tubes. They designed various tube diameters with different fabric thickness to create a sensory experience for children moving through the space.

They wanted to make sure the playhouses were safe, to make sure the parents and carers could see the children and to make sure it was accessible to all children, the playhouses had no walls, barriers or restrictions.

A space where the children could play freely and be imaginative whilst taking in the goodness of natural light and fresh air. Playing on the idea of a ‘secret den’ which would also be would be fun, safe and where everyone is welcome and equal. The inside of the pavilion is vibrant and fun whilst always maintaining views to the outside.

The RSBC Director of Services was also involved.


Bringing in outside expertise
When EPR approached me to help and they explained their vision how they wanted to take the brief further it was a big YES from me to be involved.

I really admire when companies have a big vision and choose to bring in outside expertise to make sure they can deliver on their big goals with skills they may not always have available in-house. As well as bringing me on board EPR also approached the Materials Council to ensure all the materials being used fulfilled the brief.

Our entry
In our design, we created two playhouses. A lively, energetic, one and a quiet, reflective space.

‘Ava Mai’s Trampoline’ & ‘Skye Penne’s Sensory Soothing’.
With adult supervision children can play on the supporting net which also features a slide that is cantilevered from the bottom to give a light touch at the top and avoid having any obstructive supports to the ground. The roof of the playhouse is enclosed with slot openings in the side to maintain views.

The inside of the trampoline jellyfish is vibrant and fun whilst always maintaining views to the outside. This means children will have ‘secret den’ inside but will always be visible by parents and carers. The red trampoline contrasts with the surrounding floor to increase visibility and creates a sense of excitement.

So the first thing I did for this project was an analysis of each of the spaces in these three areas of colour in relation to the vision of the team’s design, the needs of the RSBC and the brief.

  1. Colour Psychology – supporting how the children think, feel and behave in the spaces short and long term
  2. Colour Physics – choosing specific tonal colours and combinations and proportions to positively support the children’s emotions and wellbeing
  3. Colour Contrast – incorporating UK government regulations of colour use in public accessible spaces to assist with accessibility support.

The tones of colours in ‘Ava Mai’s Trampoline’ space were used to encourage positive behaviours around being physically active, lively and energetic.  The colours I chose to support this aim were:

  • Orange that taps into the children’s sense of fun, playfulness and delight as well as encouraging social interaction
  • Yellow to connect with their inner happiness, lifting their spirits, like we feel when the sun is shining and
  • Red to encourage physical activity and movement. This was used sparingly and on ground level because when too much red is used this can cause over-stimulated and negative behaviours.

The tones of colours for the ‘Skye Penne’s Sensory Soothing’ space were used to encourage positive behaviours to provide a soothing and restorative energy for those who wish to have quiet playtime such as reading a book or playing quietly by themselves. The colours I chose to support this aim were:

  • Dark blue to aid in focused concentration
  • Lighter blues to mentally sooth. Perfect for daydreaming and creative ‘blue sky thinking’
  • Soft greens to provide reassurance, and a sense of peace and
  • Soft browns to give a sense of stability and grounding.

If there’s something children love it’s colour so we wanted to make sure they would find it appealing and fun as well as encourage them to seek out the space that supported them. And the two playhouses were named after two of the children who shared their ideas and I thought this was a really wonderful idea.

A part of Applied Colour Psychology is paying particular attention to the specific tones of colours, combination of colours, proportion of each colour and the placement as this will all have a further impact on how the children will feel, think and behave in the space. I was mindful of not just how they would react in the short-term but their long-term behaviours which addressed the RSBC staff’s key concerns.

And the winner is…
We knew when we were discussing the design that it wasn’t mainstream, it was left field and pushed a lot of boundaries. We wanted to create something cutting edge and hadn’t been seen in children’s playgrounds before.

Everyone on the team absolutely loved what we created the kids loved it too.

In the end we were shortlisted from 40 entries to the final six so it was a real honour to make it onto the shortlist and present our entry in front of the judges in September.

Unfortunately it wasn’t our day and we didn’t take the crown this time around. But we all felt we made a huge contribution seeing what could be possible for childrens’ playgrounds.

“Karen brought an entirely different level of analytical thinking to the whole design process. She was on board right from the start and was key in developing the design and ensuring that the brief was delivered. We thoroughly enjoyed the process, the final result was stronger for this collaboration and I am looking forward to working with her on future projects for all things colour”- Stephen Pey, Director EPR Architects

Congratulations to Alma-nac, winner of the AJ/James Hardie House of Colour contest to design a colourful and innovative playhouse for children.

The winner of the 2017 Architects’ Journal ‘House of Colour’ competition – Alma-nac for their upside down playhouse design.


Are you intrigued with what we are able to achieve with colour?

If you’re an architect and you’re interested in finding out how you can use colour with purpose and to create positive behaviours in your designs, then drop me an email at [email protected] to arrange a call.

Wishing you a colourful day.


House of Colour image courtesy The Architects’ Journal
Winner image – Photography by Theodore Wood

All other images courtesy EPR architects


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