The Kids are All Right: Gastown Child Care Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia

A rooftop daycare checks all the boxes for smart, safe, sustainable design. But does society have the standards wrong?

The pair of rooftop daycares top a parking garage in Vancouver’s Gastown, making productive use of a residual urban space and providing panoramic views for children and child care staff.

PROJECT Gastown Child Care Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia

ARCHITECT Acton Ostry Architects

TEXT Adele Weder

PHOTOS Michael Elkan Photography

Let’s start with the accolades. Everything seems to work seamlessly in Vancouver’s Gastown Child Care Centre. The Passive House project deftly occupies a previously underused stretch of roof atop an inner-city parkade. Its spatial layout and detailing is attentive to safety concerns; the daylighting is strategic and generous; the outdoor space is outfitted with an Astroturf hill and rainbow-hued tricycle track. I can’t help but think of the brightly perfect world of the Teletubbies. The design team—comprising Acton Ostry Architects, Durante Kreuk, and an assemblage of consultants and municipal overseers—has ticked all the boxes that make a sustainable, functional, contemporary daycare for up to 37 children, and double that number when its southern section opens later this year.

Aerial context view

So, the design team has done its job as well as our society will allow. Efficient plan, economical “found space,” a much-needed daycare in a densely populated, gritty neighbourhood—on paper, it’s a ten. In the messy world of real life? Depends on what you wish to evaluate, and for whose benefit.

Rendering of typical floor plan

The journey begins in the processional space. Arriving by foot, you enter the glazed elevator box and behold a cinematic view of the parkade’s glass-block exterior, which appears to stream downwards like a waterfall as you ascend. But despite the neighbourhood’s high population density, most parents drive their tots to the daycare centre, according to staff. By car, the experience is less cinematic-waterfall and more Tarantino pre-climax as you wind your way up a stack of parking ramps to the rooftop.

A play mound echoes the views of the forested north shore mountains.

It’s not the first time a Canadian parkade’s penthouse floor has been cleverly repurposed: in 2008, PH5 Architecture transformed another Gastown parkade rooftop into a drive-in movie theatre; Revery Architecture’s SAIT Parkade includes a full soccer field; Public City Architecture inaugurated the Calgary parkade-turned-High Park during the pandemic. As cities densify, we can expect planners and developers to transform more rooftops into all sorts of programmes. As a good use of scarce urban space, it makes sense. For reducing car use, its impact—in the case of the Gastown Child Care Centre—is negligible.

A galvanized-steel-enclosed pedestrian ramp negotiates a jog in the rooftop, creating a bridge-like entrance to the child care centre.

But even those who drive there still get to experience the most delightful feature of this project: the galvanized-steel-enclosed pedestrian ramp over a jog in the rooftop grade, a metaphorical and literal transition from the grit of Gastown to the entrance of the child care centre. Inside, Acton Ostry has configured the space as an open plan—a white-cube gallery without the art. It’s luminous and welcoming at first glance. But children have to spend most of the day in this space, and that makes the design ideal a major challenge. In my own maternal experience of 20 years ago, when daycare spaces were less regulated, I noticed how my kids delighted in exploring the nooks, crannies, and idiosyncratic gestures that make a space intriguing. From the day they take their halting first steps, children are instinctively driven to explore. Our society is no longer prepared to expend the resources or accept even a highly limited risk to address that hard-wired need.

Don’t blame the architects; their options are limited. In Japan, Tezuka Architects’ Fuji Kindergarten—which includes climbing nets in trees and an open-air rooftop racetrack, connected by slides to the courtyard playground below—won the 2017 RAIC International Prize. But here, our architects are forbidden by code to design with such an expanded spatial imagination. Surrounding every daycare project is a nimbus of unspoken anxiety about the facility’s tiny and vulnerable end-users, and their ever-nervous parents and bureaucratic overseers. Each design brief and building code is loaded with directives to minimize or eliminate any risk of harm—large or small, perceived or real. The highly codified design of the Gastown Child Care Centre, like others of this paradigm, ensures that no child can conceal themselves at any moment. For better and worse, the design approach transforms the daycare centre into a panopticon, a concept that we collectively find unsavoury in institutions with adult end-users, but acceptable—even obligatory—for spaces catering to children.

he spacious indoor play areas share in the scenic views, and are outfitting with kid-sized furnishings.

The laudable safety of the Gastown Childcare Centre, as with so much of the contemporary typology, is also its deficit. Officiously secure and smartly laid out, the centre looks and feels more like a pediatric dental clinic than a tot’s paradise. Safety and efficiency come at the expense of intrigue and mystery. There are no hiding places, no shadows, no poetics of space. This is something of a departure for an Acton Ostry project; the firm’s projects are usually enriched with unexpected design gestures.  Even to maintain the integrity of the project’s most interesting gesture, the galvanized-steel entry bridge, the architects had to fend off concerns that a child might trip and scrape their knee on the unpainted perforated metal. This is an example of collective refusal to consider the principle of consequences. If the potential consequence of a design decision might be serious or deadly, let’s be clear: it’s good that we don’t take the risk. That series of locked doors, inside and out, requiring fobs and intercom access? Somewhat inconvenient but undeniably crucial, in this neighbourhood as in many others. Soft-close, pinch-free swinging doors to the interior kitchen and administrative spaces? Good idea, even if the consequence wouldn’t be deadly, as the implementation of that particular safety feature does not affect a child’s experience.

But a scrape on the knee, a slip off an adult-size chair—are they unthinkable events, ripe for litigation? Are we designing out of our kids’ environments the important lessons on the way to growing up? That is: if you do this or aren’t careful with that, you might slip and it will hurt for a few minutes, so now you know and you won’t do it again.

The colourful outdoor track is a tot-friendly spot for tricycles and outdoor play.

The fact that the Child Care Centre is furnished entirely with child-sized furniture, at the operator’s directive, makes the high-ceilinged space seem cavernous and, ironically, less child-centric. Kids know they live in an adult world; I would argue that a happier environment for a child is one that is inclusive, with a mixture of adult and child-sized chairs and tables.  As I watched the children play in the outdoor deck area on a balmy summer morning, I noticed how none of them paid any heed to what most adults would describe as the standout feature: the sublime panoramic view of the north shore mountains. My guess is the view is a strong selling point to the parents, city bureaucrats, and design press—but not to the project’s actual end-users. Despite the temperate weather, many of these preschoolers chose to gather and stand motionless under the area’s only two covered spaces: an arched trellis-tunnel, and a wooden playhouse. They had to be coaxed out of these sheltered spaces so that this visiting reporter could take an authorized (i.e. child-free) photograph of the spaces.

The benefit of a risk-averse design approach is the near-elimination of any kind of mishap or skirmish among the young charges, which makes life easier for the overworked staff, not to mention the litigation-fearing owners and operators. The cost is the denial of the need—especially within children—to find a sense of cocooning and concealment. We would do well to recall Gaston Bachelard’s contemplation of a dream house: “However spacious, it must also be a cottage, a dove-cote, a nest, a chrysalis. Intimacy needs the heart of a nest.”

Architectural curator and critic Adele Weder is a Contributing Editor to Canadian Architect.

CLIENT City of Vancouver | ARCHITECT TEAM Mark Ostry (FRAIC), Sergei Vakhrameev, Marissa Wang, Matt Wood (MRAIC), Mingyue Zhang | STRUCTURAL Fast + Epp | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Integral Group | PASSIVE HOUSE Ryder Architecture | LANDSCAPE Durante Kreuk | INTERIORS Acton Ostry Architects | CONTRACTOR Heatherbrae Builders | CERTIFIED PROFESSIONAL GHL Consultants | SUSTAINABILITY Stantec | BEP RDH Building Science | AREA 920 m2 (two buildings combined) | BUDGET $14 M | COMPLETION October 2020