university of oregon, vertical studio 2022 | early childhood learning center

Assistant Professor & Chair of the Baker Lighting Lab, University of Oregon

Studio Instructor

This studio proposed a new early childhood learning center that offers subsidized childcare to families associated with the University of Oregon.  During the first two weeks of the term, students were asked to conduct research in small teams to inform the final program composition of classrooms, administrative, and associated outdoor spaces.  After the first 2-weeks of the term, students worked individually to design a 10,000 – 15,000 ft2 center that provides service to children from infancy through pre-K. In addition to traditional graphic ideation and physical model-building, students in this studio learned computational techniques to support the design process.  Students were be supported in their use of digital tools such as Rhino, Enscape, and simulation through Climate Studio to model, visualize, and evaluate design proposals. Students were pushed to develop a strong concept for their design that was rooted in learning, play, and site. Daylight design was emphasized throughout the term and proposals pushed the envelope through interventions to the roof, courtyard, clerestory, and window.


The Covid-19 pandemic shed light on a nationwide crisis in childcare affordability and while disruptions to the workforce during Covid made this issue more acute, the childcare crisis has been pervasive in the United States for several decades.  Across the nation, many licensed early-childhood learning centers have wait lists that limit enrollment.  The federal government has been providing pre-K to lower income 3 and 4-year-olds through the Head Start program for the past 50-years, but a recent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research showed that only 41% of 4-year-olds and 16% of 3-year-olds were being served by some sort of publicly funded pre-K program[1].  A lack of funding has meant that less than half of the children eligible for these services are benefitting from the program.  A lack of high-quality pre-K and childcare programs can impact a child’s preparedness for kindergarten.  Less than one-third of children in the United States can read proficiently by fourth grade and research has continually revealed the importance of quality pre-K education in school and later in life.  The benefits of pre-K education extend to all families but have been shown to have a larger impact on low-income families, creating inequities when compared to their more advantaged peers that extend beyond childhood and into adulthood.[2]

Despite a growing appetite to pass federal legislation that supports universal pre-K, since 2020, childcare provisions (paid leave, universal pre-K, and child tax credits) have been diluted or cut from proposed legislation nine times[3].  To add some context to this problem, the average cost of childcare services for all children 0-4 years old was$9,589 a year in 2021A family earning at the median household income would need to spend 18 percent of their income to support one child. A single parent or guardian earning at the minimum wage, would have to spend 64 percent of their earnings, making the prospect of high-quality pre-K impossible without financial assistance.

Many faculty and staff on campus at the University of Oregon care for young children under the age of 5.  According to a study by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research[4], 1 in 5 college students in 2021 are raising children while attending school and 53% of those children are under the age of 6.  The University of Oregon has three childcare centers that receive administrative support and/or cost subsidy for families. Vivan Olum Child Development Center serves children of mostly faculty and staff families, while Moss Street Children’s Center and the Co-op Family Center prioritize care for student families.  Despite the presence of these three centers, demand for care exceeds availability and all three centers have wait-lists for new enrollment.  Vivian Olum’s waitlist is estimated to be 12-24 months long.

Parents who cannot secure affordable care are forced to find alternative solutions for young children, which may jeopardize their ability to stay in school, maintain full-time jobs, or achieve a healthy work-life balance.  United Academics, the union that represents faculty and staff on campus, has recently negotiated new language into their collective bargaining agreement that will require the University to direct funds towards new Childcare Centers that serve University staff and student families.   This is in response to 2.5 years of care shortages and care insecurity that has created hardship for many families. This shortage in quality care coincides with a period in a child’s life when their cognitive and social development is full steam ahead.  Children learn through experiential play and the built environments that shape this play become essential in their interactions with each other and with the world around them.  Access to nature, daylight, and a built environment that prioritizes their safety, activity, and agency is essential.

This studio will propose a fourth childcare center on campus and associate it with a newly relocated urban farm as part of the University’s North Campus Expansion on a site just South of the river.  The expanded Urban Farm footprint will provide 30,000 SF of will provide enrichment opportunities for young children in our care center and the location along the river’s pedestrian and bike paths will create ample space for children to access nature in the surrounding riparian riverfront. 

Through the course of this project, students in this studio will be asked to explore how a built space can impact early childhood development and propose design solutions that support both the social and physical development of the children it serves.  Proposals must meet high environmental design standards for daylight and ventilation to provide resilience to future pandemic-related disruptions and support staff well-being by providing functional and yet inspiring spaces to work and play.





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