So you’ve found a great site for your new childcare centre – it’s got all you’ve ever wanted. The kids are going to love it here. And there’s a lovely house already on site. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just convert it? Maybe add an extension to the back? Surely that will be cheaper and easier than knocking it down and starting from scratch?
It’s one of the most common questions we’re asked by our clients – build new or convert? Conversions can be great. When done right, it can be hard to beat the character and charm they bring. But in our experience it is generally better off to build new. More often than not, this produces the best result both in terms of quality and cost.
Regardless of your intentions, you will need to consider whether you are dealing with a listed or scheduled building. Listing or scheduling is carried out by the local council in their district plan, or by Heritage New Zealand. Unless it is about to collapse, the demolition of a listed or scheduled building is generally a non-starter – so you are looking at a conversion. Some local councils also ring-fence areas as having special character where alterations and/or demolition is tightly controlled.
The next big consideration is the ability to meet the Building Code. An existing building may be ok in its current state, but when the use is changed the building must be brought up to scratch with certain parts of the current Building Code.
Section 115(b) of the Building Act 2004 requires a change of use to comply “as nearly as is practicable” with building code requirements for means of escape from fire; protection of other property; sanitary facilities; structural performance; fire rating performance; and access and facilities for people with disabilities. If it is not possible to fully comply, it introduces a risk to the project: will the council agree that your best effort is good enough to be “as nearly as is practicable”? Everything else about the building must continue to comply with the Building Code at least to the same extent as it did before the conversion.
There is also the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008 and the Ministry of Education’s licensing criteria for ECEs. These specify several standards to be met in terms of child health and safety (among other things). Any conversion will need to consider how it can meet these standards. For example, will the existing building’s layout provide sufficient space and a suitable environment for children both inside and outside Will the configuration and layout of rooms enable there to be a separate sleeping area for children under two years old? Is it possible to provide a quiet/rest space for children over two years old? Can the building accommodate suitable spaces for food preparation, storage, meetings, staff breaks, and non-contact work?
Finally, even with the best due diligence (and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld) there are also ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. Getting on site and starting works can occasionally unveil new challenges. Asbestos. Contamination. Damaged internal structures or foundations. Contingency plans can be made but they can never cover everything.
Converting a building does not mean requirements cannot be met. It simply brings with it a greater challenge in finding design solutions. That does normally mean, however, added cost and uncertainty.
Compared to a conversion, a new-build provides much greater certainty. The building can be specifically designed for a site’s individual characteristics – both its constraints and its opportunities. Being able to design a centre from the ground up means council planning controls, Building Code requirements and licensing criteria can be accommodated from the outset rather than through a retrofit approach. We generally find that new-build centres provide the best quality environment for children and staff. Spaces are warm in winter, cool in summer and provide good amounts of natural light. Modern eco-friendly materials and energy efficient designs can be specified. The site layout, and the configuration and orientation of the building can be designed to achieve optimal child numbers, maximum play space, achieve an efficient parking layout, control and contain noise, and get the best solar and ventilation control.
Ultimately it’s about balancing certainty, cost and a modern high-quality centre with a desire to preserve or achieve a certain aesthetic or character by retaining the existing building. In our experience there are few situations where the former is outweighed by the latter.