Designing a Childcare Center: How to Choose an Architect

Many childcare programs have the need at some time for new construction, whether it is the simple remodel of an existing classroom, or the building of a brand new center from the ground up. Directors of centers most often have limited experience with hiring an architect. But choosing the right architect is essential for designing to meets your center’s needs. This article describes the most important points in hiring an architect to design a childcare center.

The architect’s childcare design experience
Numerous studies have shown the importance of the physical environment in supporting appropriate child development. First and foremost, the architect must be experienced in designing childcare centers. Experienced childcare architects learn with every new center and from every director they work with. They learn the principles of good childcare practice, and they develop ways to turn these principles into three-dimensional space that supports the children’s growth and enhances the staff’s ability to do their jobs.

For example, it is understood that a child-directed environment supports learning. The architect must then be able to design a center that encourages children’s independence. Classroom activities should be set up so that children can easily move between them on their own. Child-sized toilets should be located within classrooms so that children can use them by themselves. Classrooms should be adjacent to the play yard, so that children can go outside on their own.

The architect must understand these and a multitude of other points of good childcare design, so as to be able to help you turn the ideas that are most important to you into supportive environments.

Finding the right architect
How do you go about finding the right architect for your job? The architects that attend NAEYC and other childcare conferences are obviously committed to this specialized branch of architecture, and are likely to have taken seminars relating to childcare principles and design. They can be a good choice.

Another good way to begin is by getting referrals from other centers similar to yours. The good experiences that people from other centers have had with construction projects will most likely lead you to a good architect. Ask directors or staff from other centers what their experiences have been, both with the process of working with their architect and with the final design.

When you have names of one or more architects, call them and ask if they would be interested in your project. Ask them to send information on their firm, including samples of past projects similar to yours. Get references for clients from similar projects, and check with those references to see what their experiences were.

You may wish to interview one or more architects. Ask questions to determine the architect’s experience and approach. What is their background in childcare design? How well do they understand principles of child development, and how do they translate those principles into buildings? How much of their business is in childcare design? Do they have the architectural experience to manage your project well?

Find out what services the architect offers. Can they help you determine the feasibility of the project, or compare different options, if these services are needed? Can they program the spaces with you, determining and prioritizing the design criteria? Are they experienced in designing interior childcare spaces, as well as doing the basic building design? These and other typical steps in the design process are described below. Consider which services you are likely to need, and find out if the architect can provide these services.

Costs and schedules
Cost is a key factor in most projects. Costs for design and construction vary widely depending on the type of project and the location, but there are some general factors to consider.

When comparing design fees for different architects, look closely at the services they are offering. One architect may be offering to simply design the architecture of the building, while another may be including interior design, more extensive preliminary planning, or other additional services that will add a great deal of value to the project.

In most cases, paying more up front for thorough preliminary work is a good investment rather than a real added cost. A properly planned project can be built less expensively, and will also save time by minimizing or eliminating the need for backtracking later in the process. Also, careful preliminary work will help to give you a center that really meets your needs in the long run, so future remodeling will be much less likely. These long-term factors should be weighed carefully when reviewing an architect’s proposed fees.

Steps in the design process
Following are typical steps in the design process.

Feasibility Study — In an big-picture sense, the architect reviews the appropriateness of the site in relation to the center’s goals, the budget, building and planning code issues, and other issues that may affect the overall feasibility of the project.

Master Plan — Often, centers receive funds piecemeal, over many years. A Master Plan may be made that lays out a long-term series of steps, so that construction work can be carried out in phases, in a logical order, with a minimum of backtracking. A Master Plan helps the center to avoid wasting money on short-term fixes that will need to be changed in the future, allows staff to understand the long-term goals and to work best with interim conditions, and may help the center get funding, by giving potential funders a solid plan that they can relate to.

Programming — All of the center’s goals and design criteria are decided and prioritized at the beginning of the project, and a Program is written up that will be a reference throughout the design process. Programming is a key process that helps to minimize expensive and time-consuming changes later in the process, and to ensure that the your center’s goals will be met.

Schematic Design — The architect works out the general design and produce sketches to review with you. The architect will refine the design and revise the sketches until you have a design that you approve. It is important that you review the design carefully and make sure that all of the criteria set forth in the Program are met. Ask whatever questions are necessary to fully understand the design, and clearly communicate to the architect any changes that you want made. A rough cost estimate may also be completed during Schematic Design.

Design Development — The design is refined, details are worked out, and materials are chosen and reviewed with you. The architect will give you samples of materials such as carpeting, linoleum, window shades, paint colors, moldings, and other materials that will be used in the building. At the end of Design Development, the basic design should be set. The architect may also review costs again at this point with the you. For smaller projects, Design Development may be combined with Schematic Design or with the next phase, Construction Documents.

Construction Documents — The architect produces drawings and written specifications to give the contractor all the information for pricing and building the project.

Interior Design, or Classroom Layout — For most centers, it will be to your benefit to hire an architect who will design the interior layout of the classrooms, as well as the building itself. In this way the large-scale and small-scale design can be conceived together, creating an integral whole. If the architect also designs the Classroom Layouts, the building itself will be optimized in relation to the interior as the design develops through Schematics, Design Development, and Construction Documents. The initial design fee will be higher if Interior Design work is included, but you will end up with a center that works better for children and staff. It can be very frustrating to have a new center or classroom designed, and then try to place furniture in the classroom, only to find that the shell of the classroom precludes the best furniture layout.

Bidding and Negotiation — A contractor is selected. You may know of a contractor who you wish to have build the project. In this case you would send them the Construction Documents and negotiate a price for construction. Or you may wish to ask for bids from several contractors. The Construction Documents are then sent to the contractors for bids. After you make your choice, a contract is drawn up between you and the contractor. The architect can help administrate the Bidding and Negotiation process.

Construction Administration — The architect provides additional information to the contractor as needed, makes visits to the project during construction, and reviews the work to see that project is built as intended. The construction process is more complicated than many people realize, and having the architect on board for Construction Administration can save you a great deal of time and frustration, and insures the best product in the end. Some architects are experienced in working long-distance. In this case they would do most of the Construction Administration by phone and fax and possibly make a couple of site visits.

Post-Occupancy Training — Some architects offer this service, coming back to the center one or several times to advise the staff on how to optimize their use of the new space.

Hiring an out-of-state architect
There is a handful of experienced childcare architects who work comfortably long-distance. Since childcare design is such a specialized field, you may not be able to find a local architect who has the experience needed, so hiring an out-of-state architect who does have the experience can be a good option.

Your role during the design process
You will benefit the project by taking an active role in the design process. The more information you can give to the architect, the better they will be able to design a center that will work best for you. Make your thoughts, needs, and wishes clear to the architect throughout the process.

At the same time, a good architect can also help you clarify your goals in light of design and construction issues. It is their job to turn your needs into a physical building and interior spaces, so it is fine and often best if you do not have solutions already set in your mind. Make your goals clear to the architect, and let them give their professional input.

What you can expect from an architect
The construction process can be complex, but offers many opportunities to clarify your center’s goals. Working closely with the architect will help you to meet those goals. The right architect can guide you through the design and construction process and much more – they can turn concepts into space in ways you may not have thought of, and that truly support child development.

An architect with solid experience in childcare projects will be most likely to avoid costly errors and to accurately estimate schedules. They will be able to make recommendations that you may not have thought of, to optimize the quality of the center while keeping construction costs down. Their experience will be worth a great deal. Higher design fees may be greatly offset by savings in construction costs and the avoidance of future problems with the design.

When is the best time to hire an architect? As early as possible! The architect can help you define your goals, and sound preliminary work is money well spent. The architect’s experience in childcare design will play a crucial role at the beginning of the project. For some projects, the architect may help you get funding at the start by doing an initial plan that can be presented to potential funding sources.

For a new center, the Feasibility Study could involve an analysis of possible sites for the new center. It is essential that the architect understand crucial factors that affect the center’s quality, such as the potential for indoor-outdoor relationships, and the real square footage required for a quality center. For a small remodel where the client has a good idea of what they want, the architect may simply review the client’s decisions, and make recommendations if they see a potentially better approach. Also, the budget will be reviewed in relation to overall goals to see if they are in line with each other.

The interior landscape of a classroom is the physical world that the children inhabit, and greatly affects their experience.

You and the architect have an aim together, to create the best physical environment for your center that you can, within your budget and within your time frame. Make sure you are hiring an architect that has your best interests at heart, and communicate openly with them as the design develops.

This article has been written by Spaces for Children, a full-service architecture firm specializing in childcare design. The firm is a long-standing collaboration between Louis Torelli, M.S.Ed., a nationally known specialist in early childhood development and design, and Charles Durrett, Architect. Together they have designed facilities for over 100 programs around the country. They can be reached at (415) 456-3748.