Early childhood education centres

Last updated: 15 March 2016

Anyone constructing, altering or approving the construction of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECE) centres needs to ensure they meet the requirements of both the Building Act 2004 and the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008.

ECE Centres operate within a regulatory framework of minimum requirements for supervision, premises and facilities and health and safety (among other things).

We have worked with the Ministry of Education to assist centres through the building consent process during construction and alteration. We specifically looked at:

  • access for people with disabilities while maintaining the safety of children
  • adequate privacy for children using the toilets
  • upgrading requirements when an early childhood centre is altered or a building undergoes a change of use, such as when a house is converted into an ECE centre.

Children’s safety and access for people with disabilities

The Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008, and associated Licensing Criteria, have been developed to ensure minimum health, safety and quality standards are maintained in the provision of early childhood education.

At a centre, it is important that:

  • children are supervised at all times
  • all reasonable steps are taken to ensure their health and safety.

To ensure this, children must not be able to leave the premises unaided or unnoticed by staff.

The Building Act requires provisions for access by people with disabilities to and within all buildings where people are expected to visit or work. This includes ECE centres. Also, all new building work must comply with the Building Code, which includes specific requirements for access and facilities for people with disabilities, such as accessible routes and accessible toilet facilities.

It can be challenging to ensure any provisions designed to keep children safe and inside premises do not restrict access for people who have a disability, particularly for wheelchair users. This is because many children can reach up to 1200mm, the recommended maximum height for door handles for use by people with disabilities.

One way to ensure children’s safety while providing access for people with disabilities is to use a child-resistant door or gate which allows children and people with disabilities to enter but prevents children from exiting unassisted. Depending on their disability, people with disabilities may need to ask for some assistance to exit the centre.

Determination 116/2008 includes a possible solution. 

Adequate privacy for children using toilets

Both the Building Code and the Licensing Criteria for ECE centres require a measure of privacy for children. The Building Code requires ‘appropriate privacy’ and the Licensing Criteria require at least one of the toilets for children’s use to have ‘some sense of privacy’ for children; this does not override the need for supervision.

Neither authority specifies how privacy should be achieved. The Licensing Criteria does specify that toilets should be designed to allow children capable of independent toileting to access them safely without adult help.

Some building consent authorities (BCAs, usually councils) interpret ‘appropriate privacy’ as a requirement for doors. Although doors provide a sense of privacy, they do not always enable supervision or safe, independent access in the ECE setting; appropriate privacy can be provided in other ways.

The Acceptable Solution for Building Code G1 Personal Hygiene (G1/AS1) is based on providing sanitary facilities for people to use unsupervised and unaided. The provisions of sanitary facilities where supervision is required, such as in ECE centres, is not covered by G1/AS1. There are other ways of showing compliance with the Building Code.

Children’s toilet facilities in ECE centres, which comply with both the Building Code clause G1 Personal Hygiene and the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008, may provide appropriate privacy in the following ways (this list is not exhaustive):

  • a high-level window for discrete supervision
  • partition between sanitary fixtures of 1100 to 1200mm high
  • half-height toilet doors.

Upgrading requirements

The Building Act requires that new building work meet the Building Code’s current requirements. The Act also requires upgrading to existing parts of the building when a building is altered (alteration of an existing centre) or has a change of use (for example, from a house to a new centre). Upgrading requirements for alteration (s112 of the Act) are:

  • means of escape from fire
  • access and facilities for people with disabilities.

In other respects the building must comply with the Building Code to at least the same extent as before the alteration.

Upgrading requirements for change of use (s115 of the Act) are:

  • means of escape from fire
  • protection of other property
  • sanitary facilities
  • structural performance
  • fire rating performance
  • access and facilities for people with disabilities.

In other respects the building must comply with the Building Code to at least the same extent as before the alteration.

BCAs will usually ask for a report describing the existing building’s features and what upgrading is required to comply with the Building Code. The BCA will use these reports when evaluating what upgrading they consider to be necessary for an alteration or change of use to ensure the building complies with Building Code requirements ‘as nearly as is reasonably practicable’.

The ‘as nearly as is reasonably practicable’ approach balances the practicality, including costs, of requiring work to be done against the benefits to be gained. For example, a fire detection and warning system is relatively easy to retrofit into an existing building and the benefits from installing such a system would outweigh the costs.

We recommend the ECE centre owner or developer consults an architect, engineer or other building professional at the feasibility stage of the project to gain an understanding of the upgrading obligations under the Building Act.

This information is published by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Chief Executive. It is a general guide only and, if used, does not relieve any person of the obligation to consider any matter to which the information relates according to the circumstances of the particular case. Expert advice may be required in specific circumstances. Where this information relates to assisting people: