Choosing an Architect

Over the six years our Children's Learning Environments Newsletters have been published, we have discussed many aspects and considerations about the physical design of child care facilities. The design of the facility has a profound impact on not only the quality of the child's experience and development, but also on the cost efficiency of operating the business. In other words, design directly affects:

  • children's behavior and learning
  • how efficiently staff can perform their jobs
  • center utilization and turnover
  • what it costs to operate the business

Most design decisions are permanent, or at the least, very costly to correct. In most cases, the cost of developing a childcare center with a flawed design is the same as developing one with a good design. So getting the design right in the beginning is very important, especially to long-term success.

Yet as critical as good design is to success, many directors continue to make multiple errors that permanently impede their opportunity for profitability, and in some cases, their survival. In our travels throughout the world, we have probably seen more than 300 centers. We continue to see the same major design mistakes repeated in many centers. Where do the directors of these centers go wrong?

In most cases the problem is not intentional. In fact, the directors are following what they believe to be the correct process, which is to hire a local architect to handle the design. Unfortunately, this choice is the root cause of the problem - and the result of a myth created and perpetuated by the architecture profession. The myth is that any architect is qualified to design any type of facility. This is basically equivalent to the idea that any doctor is qualified to treat any type of ailment or disease or to perform any type surgery. Just as medicine has its specializations, so, too, is specialization required for designing facilities such as daycare and child care centers. Other examples of specialized facilities that require specialized expertise include sports stadiums, hospitals, leisure projects and airports. Before we have architects writing to us about this statement, we want to acknowledge there are architects who are exceptions. Although in the minority, there are ethical architects who will not take on an assignment from a client for a specialized building type they do not have the required expertise to design.

Unfortunately, most architects will accept a design assignment, despite their lack of training, experience and expertise in the building type. When it comes to office space, warehouse space or even public school buildings the required expertise is minimal, as these are really buildings, not businesses. But when it comes to specialized facilities, like child care, the design is much more than just the design of a building, it is the design of a business.

What typically happens in the development process is that a director will find an architect in the local area and hire that individual to handle the design. And rarely will the architect say, "Sorry, but I am not really qualified to do this for you. This is a very specialized type of building and interior, and I don't have the expertise to do a good job for you." Imagine going into your general practitioner doctor or internist and asking him or her to perform cataract surgery on you. Yet most directors basically do the equivalent when they hire their local architects who have no experience in creating a successful child care business.

Architects, and especially young firms trying to get established and gain business, have a marketing ploy that helps reel in the unsuspecting client. They offer to do some initial preliminary design work for FREE. This is known in the industry as doing work on the come. Most directors want to minimize their upfront expenditures until they get required zoning and financing, so the idea of getting design work for free has great appeal. But because the work is unpaid, the architect may very well not invest the amount of time and effort that would go into paid work. So what the director ends up with is a preliminary design for a child care center by an architect who isn't qualified to do child care design. It's back to the old maxim: you only get what you pay for.

What happens next is the fatal pitfall. The director gets the required zoning and financing and proceeds with the project design that is now basically cast in stone. And of course, the director hires the same architect, feeling obligated for all the "great work" that was done for free (oh, if they only knew!).

It's not over yet, though. The architect is now in charge of the design, and because some architects tend to have large egos when it comes to their designs, any suggestions on how to correct the design falls on deaf ears (the architect's) - even if child care specialists who know the industry are brought in. Furthermore, because the zoning approvals and financing were based upon the original preliminary design, changing any basics in the design becomes very difficult, if not impossible.

Another sales pitch technique architects sometimes use to seduce directors is to tout how "creative" their designs are. They will show the person great looking photos of their projects and will brag about the awards they have won for their creative designs. This all sounds great on the surface, but in our experience, "We are very creative" typically translates to: "We don't know anything about your project type, but we are sure we can find a creative design solution that is neither based on past experience, what has been proven to work in the industry or what will generate the most business for you. But with the right photographer, we can win a design award with it." Whenever you hear an architect or other designer bragging about how creative he or she is, run for the hills, as creativity doesn't usually translate into business success and profits.

So what's the solution for directors planning to develop a child care center? The answer is not all that complicated. Hire any of the number of design firms that specialize in the design and development of child care centers. Firms that specialize in childcare facilities are more limited, but they are out there. No, none of these firms will do upfront work for free in hopes the project will move forward and the firm will get the full design contract. As specialists, their services are in demand. They deliver value, and they will charge you for their work. The bottom line is if you hire a specialist, you will get a project that can maximize not only children's development and learning, but also profits, rather than one that has built-in impediments to both desired outcomes. Another option is to attend and have your design expert attend our Early Childhood Facilities Design Institute to find out more about high quality environments for young children.

Our firm takes the approach of producing child care projects, rather than just designing them. All aspects of the business and the design of the facility are totally interdependent, which is why we use a coordinated process to design the entire business, rather than to design just the building. Our production team is managed by Vicki Stoecklin, our Education & Child Development Director. Vicki has a vast working knowledge of all aspects of the early childhood education, including feasibility, operations, management, marketing and economics, as well as design. Our production team includes architects, who are very important team members, but the architects do not oversee the process. They are just one of many designers on the team. Our production team also includes interior designers, who understand the emotional and psychological aspects of interior design, landscape architects, civil engineers, sign designers, acoustic engineers, equipment specialists, kitchen design and many other specialized designers.

Our design team has worked throughout four continents. In the United States, where sealed architectural, civil engineering, mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering and landscape architect drawings are normally required, we are either licensed or qualified to obtain licenses in nearly every state. We have designed child care, child development centers, Early Head Start and Head Start projects. To learn more about our past projects click on

You will probably only develop one building for young children in your lifetime, so it is important to create one that maximizes support for staff, children, parents and your community.