Eight Steps in the Design Process for Childcare Centers

There are eight distinct steps in the design process for a successful children’s environment. Understanding the role of each of these steps will facilitate a smoother working relationship with Spaces for Children in designing your center.

The steps are:

  1. Feasibility Study
  2. Programming
  3. Schematic Design
  4. Design Development
  5. Construction Documentation
  6. Bidding and Negotiation
  7. Construction Administration
  8. Post-Occupancy Training

Our mission at Spaces for Children is to create high quality, economical childcare facilities that support your program’s ability to provide quality childcare. To this end we believe that it is important to consider criteria for quality care and best practices in the initial Feasibility Study and Programming phases.

For example, program design elements such as group size, classroom size, the indoor-outdoor relationship, and easily accessed diapering and toileting facilities with adjacent handwashing sinks all have a great impact on the functioning of the center, and also have many ramifications on all aspects of the building design and costs. Considering these and other key elements up front helps us to create centers that support the teachers’ roles as facilitators of children’s learning and development, and the amount of “managing” by teachers is significantly reduced. Child-directed learning is then promoted instead of prevented. In fact, we believe the design of the facility to be a critical factor in optimizing a teacher’s competency. In a very real way, a well-designed center becomes a tool for the teachers’ professional development.

We consider all significant design criteria up front during the Feasibility Study and Programming phases, and carry this information through the subsequent phases of design, to insure that the physical design optimizes the funds available to promote quality care for children as well as a supportive work environment for the staff.

1. Feasibility Study
This first step undertakes to examine the issues that will make the project feasible or unfeasible, and in some cases to determine the best strategy for proceeding with the project. The following may be addressed in the Feasibility Study:

  • Budget and scope of the project: Will the proposed project work at the desired budget?
  • Site analysis: Is the site chosen suitable? Is it zoned for the project? Are there sufficient parking, utilities, etc.? For some projects, Spaces for Children assists in analyzing several sites to assess the feasibility of their use for the proposed project.
  • What is the best strategy for developing the project on a given site?
  • What is the optimal size and type of building and play yard? Will a specific building work?
  • Is the building or site chosen structurally sound? What will be required in the way of soils tests, seismic upgrades, etc.?
  • How will other site considerations, such as sound levels, traffic, etc., affect the project?
  • Are there any toxins or hazardous materials to be dealt with?
  • What other cost, planning, and design constraints might the project run into?
  • Preparation of a report which documents all of the findings of the study and makes recommendations for proceeding with the next steps of the project.

By addressing these questions up front, we can avoid costly and frustrating surprises down the road.

2. Programming
Programming is the process used to arrive at the set of criteria on which the design is based, and by which it is later evaluated. The programming phase is where the project is built—not brick by brick, but decision by decision. This is the time when a common vocabulary for the project is created, and preferences and requirements are determined and built into the overall picture before time is invested in design.

One of the most important purposes of the program is to reduce the need for later backtracking and redesign. A thorough programming process is essential for maintaining an orderly and cost-effective design process later in the project. We have found that many problems that people encounter with the design of their centers could have been avoided with a thorough programming process. Spaces for Children goes through a detailed list of criteria with the client, looking for program needs that translate into square footage or other design requirements. For example, one of many questions for infant care that we would ask would be if the school or parents will provide the diapers, and if cloth or disposable diapers would be used. In this simple example, if the design does not accommodate the center’s needs, there will be problems with storage space, delivery, and odors in the classrooms. Programming is the process where Spaces for Children goes through all the needs of the center so that appropriate design decisions can be made later in the process.

Spaces for Children encourages clients to get directly involved in establishing the program. Programming usually involves a meeting or series of meetings with the center’s director, and in many cases the teachers, other staff, and possibly parents. In the programming meetings, the client’s specific goals, priorities, and uses for the spaces are discussed in detail. Spaces for Children will encourage the client to consider all important issues up front, help the client understand the ramifications of their decisions, and make recommendations based on past experience and professional knowledge. All of the requirements of the project are then put into a clearly-organized written program which will be a reference throughout the design process.

If, however, the client would like to play a less active role in establishing the program, Spaces for Children can develop a complete project program for the client’s review based on our experience designing dozens of child care facilities.

Items specifically analyzed in the programming phase typically include the following:

  • Goals, needs, wishes, limitations, expectations, aesthetics.
  • Scope of work: the number of children in the program; size of the building; number of rooms; room adjacencies.
  • Activities to occur in each room and outdoor play area.
  • The Center’s Education Program: Pedagogical philosophy; parent interaction; staffing; meals; etc.
  • Classroom observation.
  • Safety and security requirements.
  • Existing and new utility locations and requirements.
  • Site context: Weather, noise, solar access, vehicular access, handicap accessibility, sense of entry, site analysis.
  • Codes and regulations: Outline of planning and building department parameters.
  • Budget and priorities: Preliminary cost analysis usually based on area and/or volume, to be refined later.
  • Project Scheduling.
  • In the case of reusing an existing building: Carefully document and evaluate present building and its conditions. Determine what can be reused, what must be discarded, what must be rebuilt.

3. Schematic Design
Based on an approved Program, the Schematic Design synthesizes the program into a defined, feasible design. The design will be shown in the form of Schematic Drawings, and in some cases a study model. The Schematic Design will address all significant areas of design and will be reviewed with the client before proceeding with more detailed drawings. A preliminary cost estimate is also usually provided at this stage.

Work in this phase typically includes the following:

  • Complete preliminary building floor plans, sections, and elevations to determine space dimensions, areas, and volumes; sketches and site plans showing circulation, uses, relationships of spaces.
  • Complete room layout of all child-related furniture, plumbing fixtures, etc.
  • Preliminary material choices.
  • Preliminary landscape concepts.
  • Preliminary play yard layout.
  • Study model, if appropriate.
  • Address preliminary mechanical, electrical, and plumbing issues.
  • Answer preliminary civil engineering questions (paving, grading, drainage, etc.) and structural engineering questions (structural system, soils, etc.).
  • Coordination with engineering, landscape, and other consultants as necessary (structural, mechanical, electrical, landscape, civil engineers, etc.).
  • Code research and coordination with regulating agencies (licensing, building department, planning department, etc.).
  • Preliminary cost estimate.
  • Present design to interested parties.
  • Revise design subsequent to client discussions.

4. Design Development
Based on an approved Schematic Design, Design Development is the process of refining and fixing the design, and working out all the details, including the selection of materials and the engineering systems. The aim is to finalize all design decisions before proceeding with Construction Documents, the more detailed and expensive documents that the contractor will need to complete the project. A more detailed cost estimate may also be provided at this phase. In smaller projects, Design Development may become part of the Schematic and Construction Document phases, rather than being a distinct phase of its own. The Design Development package will be reviewed with the client before proceeding further with the project.

Work in this phase typically includes the following:

  • Finalize all engineering issues such as structural system, heating and cooling systems, lighting system, etc..
  • Coordinate with other design consultants, such as mechanical engineer, acoustical engineer, structural engineer, landscape architect, etc., on final systems and design.
  • Finalize construction techniques and materials.
  • Finalize equipment requirements, sizes, furniture layout.
  • Finalize all design issues that affect the look of the building and the feel of the rooms.
  • Choose finish materials.
  • Finalize code issues.
  • Complete outline specifications, a written list of criteria for materials and building methods.
  • Revise cost estimate, considering probable labor and material requirements.

5. Construction Documentation
Based on approved Design Development documents, construction drawings and written specifications are put together which describe in detail all of the construction work to be done. These are the documents upon which the construction contract will be based, and which the contractor will use to build the project. If a building permit is required, the application is usually made at the end of Construction Documentation.

Work in this phase typically includes the following:

  • Prepare specific and detailed Construction Drawings required to bid, apply for approval from building and planning departments, and complete construction. These may include dimensioned floor plans, elevations, sections, details, engineering plans such as electrical, mechanical, structural, and/or civil engineering plans, landscape plans, final interior design plans, energy report, and written Specifications that covering all materials, methods of construction, and construction contract requirements. Specifications are closely coordination with construction drawings.
  • Complete all coordination with consultants. Coordination of consultants’ Drawings and written Specifications is essential to avoid conflicts between the various trades during construction.
  • Resolve any outstanding building or planning code issues.
  • Apply for permit if required.

6. Bidding and Negotiation
The project is put out to bid, a contractor is selected, and a construction contract is drawn up between the contractor and the client. Spaces for Children will assist the client throughout this process.

Work in this phase typically includes the following:

  • Prepare documents for bidding such as the Invitation to Bid, Instructions to Bidders, Bid Form, etc.
  • Advertise bids and solicit contractors to bid on the project.
  • Coordinate and provide bid documents to bidders.
  • Check bidders’ qualifications (references, insurance, experience, personnel, etc.).
  • Provide additional information (in the form of Addenda to the Construction Documents) as needed to bidders.
  • Meet with contractors and material suppliers.
  • Receive bids.
  • Assist client in negotiation and preparation of Owner/Contractor Agreement and other necessary documents.

7. Construction Administration
On-site observation and conscientious administration of paperwork throughout construction is necessary to assure that communication flows smoothly, that high standards are maintained, and that the client gets their construction money’s worth.

Work in this phase typically includes the following:

  • Make periodic site visits while project is under construction, observing construction for compliance of design intent.
  • Conduct on-site meetings with contractors, suppliers, client, etc.
  • Administrate changes with client and contractor.
  • Clarify drawings as required.
  • Answer contractor’s questions.
  • Complete additional drawings as required.
  • Process numerous documents and paperwork for contractor’s payment, changes, submittals from the contractor, etc.
  • Participate in resolution should any disputes arise during construction.

8. Post-Occupancy Training
“It doesn’t pay to design an organ, if no one knows how to play it.” Spaces for Children’s environments are rich and complete, yet flexible. After construction is complete, we work with teachers and staff on use and enhancement of developmental design, incorporating age-appropriate activities and experiences, and showing staff how the environment can be altered according to their needs.

On-site training and/or phone consultation with administrative and program staff are available as needed for each center upon completion of the construction project.

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