Understanding the Design Process

Designing a child care center is a complex task, and the resulting product can be only as good as the process that creates it. Whether the project is a renovation or new construction, there are typical sequential steps to the design process that the early childhood practitioner will need to understand and be involved with.

Feasibility Study

The first step toward creating a new child care center is to examine the issues that determine whether the project is feasible and to give guidance on the best strategy to use in proceeding with the project. In some cases, the best advice actually may be to not proceed with the proposed project. The following issues should be examined during the feasibility study:

  • Programming: What is the optimal size center for the market in your area? What type of building would work best in your community? What are the requirements for both indoor and outdoor space, based on the market feasibility?
  • Market feasibility: What is the market or supply and demand for child care in your geographic region? Will parents utilize your center? What is the market cost for you to provide child care and will parents pay that cost? If not, how will other funding streams be utilized?
  • Budget and scope of the project: What is the operating budget of the center? Will the project be a financial success at the desired operating budget, based on probable income?
  • Site analysis: What is the best option for developing the center on a specific site? Are there site considerations such as sound levels, different types of pollution, building orientation, street access or traffic issues? Is the site suitable and zoned for child care use? Is there sufficient parking space? Is there sufficient space for outdoor playgrounds? If using an existing building for renovation, is the building structurally sound?
  • Preparation of other reports and documents that can be incorporated into a business plan or will be required by potential funders.

Master Planning

Often, centers receive their funding over a lengthy period of time, sometimes over a several year period. This can be true for both indoor and outdoor spaces. A master plan can be developed so that construction or renovation can be carried out in phases, in a logical order, with a minimum of backtracking as funds become available. A master plan helps the center 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 both banks and potential funders a solid plan they can relate to. A master plan approach is often used in renovation projects and new construction where additional expansion in the near future is foreseeable.


This term has a different connotation in the field of design than it does in the field of education. In design, the program is a specific statement of the spaces needed, their uses, space requirements and functional relationships within a building. Although the architect or design team writes the program, early childhood staff provides the content. The program represents the results of the feasibility study, your observations of other programs, an evaluation of your own program operations and discussions with staff and parents. These program requirements will include specifics such as the ages and number of children to be served, teacher/child ratios in each room, square footage requirements, furnishing or equipment considerations, trash service, kitchen requirements, office requirements and the overall desired qualities of the building.

Designing a quality child care facility involves more than just architecture

A good design program will reflect the philosophy, goals and standards of the early childhood program. It will identify the primary activities and supports needed for each space, code issues and adjacencies. Design programming also needs to include all the considerations for the outdoor playground areas and their relationships to the classrooms. Bubble diagrams are used at this stage to visually express adjacencies and relationships. Close attention should be paid to the location of rooms and the orientation of the spaces. Accurate programming will reduce the need for later redesigns.

In the case of reusing an existing building, this phase should carefully document and evaluate the current use of the building and the conditions of both the site and the building. At this point, you will need to determine what can be remodeled and what must be discarded.

Schematic Design

During the schematic design phase, the design professional will take the program and translate it into building specifics and a preliminary layout, defining relationships and making sure the areas meet the space and code requirements. At this time the design team can generate different design solutions that meet the program requirements. Take your time to study the different design solutions. This is the point at which you should evaluate the building orientation of the site, study the relationship of the indoors to the outdoors and verify the design does not compromise your program requirements. Building codes and licensing issues are also addressed in detail during the schematic design phase.

The schematic phase usually ends with a complete design proposal that includes floor and site plans and a preliminary cost estimate. The floor plans should include a room layout of all child-related furniture, plumbing fixtures, etc. Outdoor plans should include play equipment, play areas and landscaping. Schematic plans sometimes include preliminary elevations of the exterior or the building and preliminary materials choices.

Design Development

Here the design team will begin to create the specific details that are needed to construct the building. Close attention should be paid to the size of rooms, finishing materials, sink heights, toilet heights, counter heights, flooring materials, acoustics, ADA and universal design, lighting fixtures and natural daylighting. It is important that the early childhood professional know how to read scaled drawings that will be generated during this period. Construction techniques, materials, equipment requirements, furniture layouts, code issues and engineering issues are all finalized during this period.

Construction Documents

These detailed drawings and specifications are prepared for the general contractor, electricians, plumbers, etc., to communicate how the building should be constructed. These plans will be very technical. However, it is important that the early childhood professional knows how to read them, because important details can sometimes get lost in the process. When designing for young children, lost details can mean the room just won't work for them. The margin of error is smaller for young children because that they can not adapt to an inappropriate environment such as sinks and toilets that are too high. Directors need to know how to read dimensioned floor plans, elevation drawings, sections, construction details, specifications, engineering plans, landscape and playground plans.

Contract/Bid Documents and Value Engineering

The construction documents, along with the finishing schedules, will eventually be competitively bid out to several contractors. During this phase the documents are prepared for the invitation to bid, bids are advertised and each bidder's qualifications are checked.

Many projects come in over budget during this phase so the project will need to be "value engineered." It is very important that the early childhood professional be involved in this process, because this individual and the architect will have different ideas on where costs can be cut. Often, it is the "value" to children and staff that ends up getting engineered out, rather than things that don't negatively impact the value to them.

Awarding the Contract

Construction can begin once the architect or owner has awarded the contract to a specific contractor. A contract should be prepared for the owner/contractor agreement.

Construction Administration

During construction, the architect and other design professionals should be monitoring construction to make sure it follows the contract specifications. There are sometimes changes that need to be issued during construction, so it is important that the early childhood professional continues to communicate with the architect and the contractor to ensure that all decisions are made in the best interest of children and families. Without the input of the early childhood professional, the general contractor sometimes makes substitutions and alterations that are inappropriate for this situation. Any changes in the construction documents should be submitted for review to the full design team.

The architect will also conduct on-site meeting with contractors and sub-contractors during this time and will be available to answer any questions that might arise. If problems occur, sometimes it is necessary to prepare additional supplemental drawings. At this point in the process additional drawings can be very expensive, as the general contractor will be tacking on extra costs known as a "change order." These are costly, which is why it is so important to get the information right during the programming phase and to make sure it is thoroughly documented during the design phase.

Occupancy and Post-Occupancy Evaluation

Once the building is completed, the architect and the general contractor will conduct a walk-through of the building and make a "punch list" of things that need to be corrected. Likewise, the childhood director should complete a punch list. At this time, building inspectors also have to sign off that the building is ready for occupancy.

It is important that you continue to evaluate how the design of the building meets your needs once it is occupied. What works well? What would you change if you could? Even if you do not plan to construct another building, the feedback will be important to the design team.


  • Olds, Anita Rui (2001). Child Care Design Guide; New York: McGraw Hill.