Renovating for success

Architects can influence the experience of children, parents and staff, as well as the financial performance and productivity of a childcare centre. Investors are forever searching for that magic balance between certainty and profitability. We cannot predict the future with any certainty, but we can certainly design buildings that are adaptable.

So, what makes for a successful childcare centre? The answer depends on who you ask.

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The child’s experience
Ask somebody what they did a week ago last Thursday, and chances are they will not remember. In some cases, this will be because they got back from the office party just in time to see the babysitter making breakfast, but for most of us, Thursdays just seem so… mundane. On the other hand, if you ask people about their first day at kindergarten, a lot of them will remember, even if it was 30 years ago. It was their first experience of being away from home, away from the safety net that parents provide, stepping out into the big, wide world. Of course we remember; it was a major lifechanging event, and it still is for children today.  So, the experience had better be a good one!

Occasionally, we get asked to renovate a childcare centre. Most recently, we were asked to renovate one that was built in the 1970s and was quite impressive in its day, but was starting to look a little tired. It had huge rooms, high ceilings and lots of internal windows, so you could see from one room to the next: only, the windowsills were too high for the children to see outside. As designers, we make a conscious effort to see these buildings from a child’s perspective: to create a sense of familiarity, and a home-like environment. The least we can do for users of our buildings (children, parents and staff) is to put them at ease.

Did you know that when a three-year-old walks up to your childcare centre reception counter, that child can see the chewing gum stuck under the counter top, but often cannot make eye contact with the person behind the desk because it is too high? We occasionally get down on our knees, just to have a look at a space from a child’s perspective. It can be quite educational.  So, have a look at your childcare centre. Is it smart, colourful and corporate, with big sliding automatic doors at the front, high ceilings, huge rooms, and a smart reception counter that is the first thing you see? Do the kids look suitably impressed/terrified when they should be champing at the bit to go play with their friends?

The parents’ perspective
Of course, the kids are not the ones paying the fees (you noticed that, too?), and the design of childcare spaces has to work for parents, as well. So, if Mum or Dad comes in suffused with guilt at leaving their child for the day while they go out to work, then a touch of ‘this is a safe place’ mixed up with a liberal dose of ‘this is a happy place’ will make them feel much better about the whole deal.  Create a space near the entrance in which parents can sit and relax. Fill it with children’s artwork, information on the childcare programs and resources for parents. Maybe provide viewing windows into the childcare rooms so parents can see that their child is happy. Make it possible for parents to socialise, compare notes, empathise and gossip. Suddenly, you have a community, not just a childcare centre.

The childcare staff
As architects, we came to childcare projects after working on schools for years. The prep teacher in a school would always tell us that their role was the most important, as it prepares the child for the subsequent years of schooling. So, it was no surprise to be informed that this was only partly true – the real heavy lifting gets done by childcare staff. All staff are hugely important to the success of the enterprise, and there a few things we like to keep in mind:

Pedagogy: While never quite sure what this means,we do know that it changes about once a fortnight.  So, we make sure that the spaces we design are capable of minor, or major, alterations without huge expense. Building spaces must be adaptable.

Paperwork: Does anyone think that the planning, recording and reporting tasks are going to diminish over time? No, I thought not. It is not unusual to see staff working in spaces designed for about half their current workload. So, a renovation is an opportunity to create appropriate work spaces for childcare staff.

Staff ratios: The optimum ratio of staff to children is probably the key factor in the cost of a project. And it is not just the ratio, but the size of the rooms, too, so that each childcare group is just right for the staff you employ. Getting this even a little bit wrong can easliy cost $400,000 or $500,000 over 10 years.

Get it right, and you might just have that magic balance that will appeal to investors.

Ted Woollan is a Director of Woollan Hamlett Architects. The company specialises in schools, kindergartens and listening to clients. For more information, phone 03 9534 0299 or mail office@woollanhamlett.com.au.

Originally published in Belonging Magazine, Volume 4 Issue 2

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