Every typology has certain restrictions or specialised knowledge, but one of the most complex to negotiate is childcare centres. Co-lab Architecture has long established expertise in this space and the practice’s Kane Barnett guides us through some of the need-to-knows.
The most important thing to remember when addressing childcare projects is that they are not simple buildings. Nor should they be – the health and safety of some of society’s most vulnerable members, our children, is at stake.
Accordingly there is a whole raft of legislation and rules in place to ensure that work is carried out correctly, which means that the projects are a lot more complex than many developers initially appreciate.
Above and beyond the expected planning and building permits, a third level of approval is required. In Victoria, the Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET) must inspect, approve and license the centre before any children are allowed on-site. This approval ensures that the centre can operate in compliance with the National Quality Framework (NQF) for Early Childhood Education and Care. Some guidelines are explicit; for example, there are minimum areas required per child for indoor and outdoor space.
Other guidelines aren’t so specific. They are more difficult to quantify and are based on balancing a number of factors simultaneously; for example, the quality of the landscaping and the dimensions of the area. This is deliberate, as the overall experience of a centre cannot be determined by a single element or minimum requirement. The DET’s main concern is that the buildings and grounds are appropriate and safe for children, and give those children good, quality experiences.
Above all remember that designing childcare centres to the minimum requirements of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) will not guarantee you a licence. The DET is looking for centres that illustrate a deep understanding of best practice in terms of both architecture and performance.
And this is why it makes sense for developers to make sure that they engage practices with a great deal of experience and practical knowledge in the space. Any design firms with such experience, those that have worked many times with childcare providers, will know that it’s essential to engage with DET as early as possible when designing new childcare centres.
If the design practice is lacking in this experience, it can be very difficult to judge exactly what DET is looking for, particularly when more multi-storey centres are being built – with the extra considerations they require.
Before a site is even purchased, it’s important to speak to someone who knows exactly what is required and what DET will and won’t accept.
For example, an architect should be able to take one look at plans or the intended site and let you know whether a permit is likely to be issued. Is there a second stairwell? How much parking is there? Are there overhangs that will affect the amount of natural light available to the children? If such considerations aren’t taken into account from the very beginning, developers could well be wasting their time.
Parking may seem like a minor issue, but the requirements are 0.22 car parks per child, which for a centre holding 100 or so children will mean 22 car parks, it’s necessary to have the full contingent because during peak hours there are so many people coming, dropping off and going.
This again is where experience comes to the fore. Being able to balance the building size that you would like with the number of children you would like to be able to accommodate, the playground size and then factor in the car parking, particularly with council restrictions… can all be quite a challenge.
There are times when it’s possible to get away with fewer car parks, but only when the centre has access to excellent public transport or is perhaps close to a shopping centre, so that shared parking facilities are an option.
Another important element in the design is the provision of easy surveillance. Does your design mean that it is simple for carers and other staff to have their eyes on their charges at all times?
If you’re designing a centre with myriad nooks and crannies, there is immediately an issue with children being able to hide and, potentially, get trapped out of view. Although every childcare worker, parent and guardian will tell you that they need to have eyes in the back of their head, when a carer is responsible for a number of mobile children, while also needing to be vigilant about sleeping babies, who may be at risk of SIDS, for example, simply trusting to their instincts is not enough.
Borrowing from the traditions of non-traditional educational systems like Montessori or Steiner, DET now also places a great emphasis on the use of natural materials – and lots of different surfaces to fire up budding imaginations and the urge to explore.
There are guidelines produced by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) to help developers and design firms in this space – the aforementioned NQF – but while the guidelines describe qualitative things, they don’t really cover quantitative ones.
Recently, Co-lab has been engaged by the DET to author the Early Childhood Centre Design Guide for Victoria. This newly appointed role will involve close collaboration with the DET and involvement in workshops with key consultants to create a framework for the guidelines. The appointment is both an exciting opportunity for the practice and recognition that, once again, experience is your absolute best friend.
The cardinal rules
That said, there are some must-haves and tips that any developer working on a childcare centre project and looking to secure DET approval needs to consider:
Avoid outdoor play areas that are substantially enclosed or covered by levels above.
Avoid children’s rooms that rely on borrowed light or without adequate natural ventilation.
Consider surveillance and supervision of children by the educators.
Consider the orientation of the building to maximise solar access to outdoor play areas.
Ensure children are able to experience the natural environment in outdoor areas.
Examine how outdoor and indoor areas can be integrated for flexible use.
Do not skimp on playground design and quality of materials.
This was originally published in issue 02 of Better Building.
Image: Ravenhall Kool Kidz © Kit Haselden