By Elizabeth Ranieri, Michael McGroarty, and Carlos Esquivel
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted one of the great unsung heroes of our nation’s economy: childcare. Working parents depend on it, but Covid-19 has caused many childcare and preschool facilities to close, some temporarily and some for good. This is a tragedy, because these facilities give children their first opportunity to form attachments with someone outside their own families.
In the Bay Area, the scarcity and high expense of childcare has posed a significant challenge to families already struggling with the cost of living. One provider, Burlingame-based Palcare Childcare, has been making a difference since the early 1990s. Palcare offers childcare programs with flexible scheduling—not only during the day but also well into the evening—for families of children ranging from three months to five years old. As a nonprofit, it focuses on affordability, with tuition rates well below market rate. As a nonprofit, it focuses on affordability, with tuition assistance for families based on income and eligibility, as well as extended hours for San Francisco International Airport and County of San Mateo and Mills/ Peninsula hospital employees.
To expand its existing campus, Palcare leased a former appliance showroom across the street from its current facility and asked us to transform it into an open, comforting space for 32 infants. The challenge for us was that the original building was added to over the years at different times with different construction types—concrete, masonry, wood frame—with a wood truss ceiling. The oldest portion of the building dates back to the early 1930s and is reminiscent of art deco.
Our main idea was to create a unified interior despite the hodgepodge of building types and to make the space feel open and conducive to caring for infants. To unify the interior, we created a contiguous soffit above the daycare center’s back-of-house functions—the kitchen, diaper changing areas, restrooms, storage room, and staff lounge—that we extended above the open corridor that runs between the back-of-house area and the childcare areas. This soffit performs a practical function, containing utilitarian elements such as lights and sprinklers and data systems—but it also unifies the interior, visually tying together the amalgamation of spaces. We painted the soffit the same blue as Palcare’s logo, a calming, distinctive color that contrasts with the perimeter’s white walls.
Bringing in natural light was important too. We placed the four childcare areas along the large windows at the front and side of the building. The childcare areas are separated from the corridor and from each other by low 42-inch-tall walls that provide enclosure for toddlers while making it easy for staff to keep an eye on everyone. We introduced curvilinear shapes and rounded edges here and there, creating a dynamic space for kids to run through.
The four childcare areas are designed to accommodate up to eight infants each, for a total of 32. During the pandemic, the facility has scaled that down to four infants per area and shortened its hours slightly. The Bay Area—and our country—could do a lot more to help working parents find and afford childcare. Until that happens, Palcare is a crucial resource and offers nurturing, relationship-based childcare critical for the long-term health of each child, growing their sense of self, safety and curiosity That’s why the architecture of these environments is so important. It’s essential to make them warm, welcoming, and open—even if the budget is tight design can make a difference.