Towsley Children’s House

University of Michigan
Electrical Engineering
Energy & Sustainability
Mechanical Engineering
Project Size
22,500 sq. ft.
Completion Date
Construction Cost
Client Contact
Scott Wood University of Michigan

The University of Michigan Towsley Children’s Houseset in the middle of a residential area on campus, was originally located in two buildings‚ one serving working parents and the other a childcare & research center. Today the Center specializes in the care and education of children, three-months to five-years-old. The goal of this new construction was to double student capacity using the same building site for the new facility. The overall mission was to provide a home-like environment that was comfortable and stimulating with both indoor and outdoor fun‚ all while meeting the stringent code requirements for state licensures. Also important was the need to preserve the half-century-old history of the founding Center, while serving as a living learning backdrop for university students majoring in early childhood development.

It could be said that Towsley is organically grown. The IDS team led the design and construction of the new facility, inside and out. The new building maintained a residential style, fitting into the local community with a two-story craftsman style bungalow exterior. The interior was divided into five ‚Äúhouses‚Äù accommodating the diverse needs of the children. Within each house, geometric shapes are used in floor treatments and light fixtures to create interest and direct group flow and focus. IDS interior designer, Val Grant submitted six different color palettes during the design phase, each driven by a different environmental element. “To accomplish a non-institutional environment, I chose color palettes found in nature” she said. “I was surprised when the client decided to use all of them, but it really worked with the separate houses.” All of the different icons leaf, a flower, stones, and twigs, are included on permanent signage within each specific house area.

The overall design provides an experiential theater where children can play and learn in an energetic space. This design approach can be seen in organic ways; one of the most unique, and surprising, is through the windows. Large two-story windows allow for a flood of daylight where the children gather once a week to observe, with great excitement, regular visits from the garbage man, allowing for early lessons in waste management! “It was actually one of the design issues” IDS architect Kevin Marshall recalled. “Hiding the dumpster was challenging and it ended up being visible through some of the windows, but it resulted in a learning experience for the kids!” Another example of hands-on learning can be seen in the community kitchen where benches are built to scale to allow toddlers to sit and observe meal preparation and sometimes assist with the tasks. The bathroom facilities exceed home-like options with toilets and sinks made-to-scale-small!

The IDS architectural & interior design team worked in collaboration to bring to life a vibrant Center with benefits for all-children, faculty, parents and university students. Safety and durability defined the finishes used throughout the facility and supported the play-based curriculum. Observation opportunities are easily available to faculty and parents through interior windows, mirrored glass and activity-specific viewing portals. Infants nap in a quiet room and can be easily observed. To honor the legacy of the original Towsley House, pieces from the original building were added into the new structure; the original banisters can be seen in the new reception desk. And the must-haves for developing kids? A butterfly bench and a fairy door!

Project Overview

  • New construction to combine and expand center for children ages 3-months to 5-years
  • Needed to maintain residential exterior; accommodate age appropriate needs; stringent adherence to code
  • Fixtures, finishes and furniture promote nature and experiential play and learning
  • Used same site as old building yet doubled the student capacity and building footprint; design encourages observation—parent, faculty and peer; the garbage man is a weekly feature

Project Team

Project Architect, Construction Administrator
Interior Designer
Mechanical Engineer
Project Designer
David Osler
Civil Consultant
Midwestern Consulting
Landscape Consultant
Grissim Metz Andriese Associates
Structural Consultant
SDI Structures
Construction Manager
Phoenix Contractors