Designing education facilities – the importance of a holistic approach

Siena College, Camberwell - Convent Redevelopment 2019: The College entry finally returned to the iconic Convent building.

By Tammy Beck, Williams Ross Architects

Fads in education evolve so quickly that when considering building projects, it’s tempting to ask, ’Why master plan?’ They require updating every 3–5 years and a complete re-think every 5–8 years, so what’s the point? Through many long-term relationships we have enjoyed over the years with schools throughout Victoria, we believe the greatest value in a master plan is identifying where not to build, and where not to invest.

Master planning becomes a strategic task of meeting current need, while protecting future opportunities for the next custodians of the campus to develop.

For long-established schools, decisions about where to invest are critical — few site opportunities remain, and costs are likely to be higher. They often require staging, decanting, demolition and the associated challenges of building close to ongoing learning and teaching.

Untangling the web

Often high priority projects can’t begin until lower priority enabling works occur. Without long-term analysis of operational and construction issues, a potential site might unwittingly be built out or its cost multiplied due to increased difficulty.

When planning started in 2002 at Siena College, Camberwell, 21 floor levels over eight interlinked buildings on a small block were a major challenge to equitable access. However, with detailed understanding of the buildings and lateral thinking we were able to find a location that could link up to five levels and ensure it was protected for a future lift.

Similarly, strategic break-through points deliver circulation with minimal impact on core facilities. While these upgrades might not be built for years, holding those locations from interim investment is vital to preserve the opportunity.

Frequently, ‘arterial sclerosis’ has set in, with offices shoe-horned under staircases and once good-sized rooms reduced to rabbit-warrens. Master planning identifies how and when we can unclog arteries, herd lockers into bays, free up vital circulation and wrangle old but valuable structures to support new pedagogies and learning styles.

Maintaining the vision

The available learning areas need to be analysed throughout build stages to maintain operations and identify when and how long temporary relocations or the dreaded ‘portable village’ is needed. Getting planning permits through increasingly demanding councils and vocal neighbours requires careful strategic thinking about the order of projects, weighing short and long-term goals.

The Siena St Catherine Centre: Library expansion, Lecture/Theatre and Art Gallery, was the fifth project to come from the master plan. Close work with the College leadership and Board enabled an ambitious program upgrading three existing levels, six new GLAs and VCE Centre.

They bravely embraced our suggestion for a fundraising program. It not only met their ambitious target but built school identity and community recognition to an unanticipated level.

Meanwhile, the administration building had been marked for demolition to create an important new courtyard but remains vital for decanting.

It was 17 years and twelve projects later that we could at last refurbish the quirky, much-loved Convent as the main visitor entry and Principal’s office. Finally, the front door was at the heart of the school!

Woven through this complex web is, of course, the underlying vision and educational objectives. Careful consultation and thought about organisational structure, team locations, culture, morale and mission underpin facility planning and support change. In parallel, we love to use planning and building projects as real-world experiential learning and career exposure for students — and their design ideas inform the projects. The excited Principal called it ‘deep learning!’.

Sacred Heart Girls College, Oakleigh – Learning Extension and Roof Deck, 2018

Looking to the future

Our inner-city schools are so constrained that we see roofs as our new frontier. Rooftop gardens can be used for STEAMD, sustainability, food programs, sheltered outdoor learning, hospitality and simply recreation — with great views! Roofs are a potential 25–30 per cent footprint gain — without land cost. Structurally and financially feasible on only a few existing buildings, one to two further storeys or rooftop decks should be allowed for on most new structures.

At Our Lady of Sion, WRA designed a future-proofed slab that became two new GLAs within the build process. At Whitefriars, Sacred Heart and Sion, new projects feature rooftop learning and garden decks to supplement curriculum and pedagogy innovations.

Master plans are those maps that help us navigate unknown territory – they can be vague on details, carrying ‘Beware, here there be dragons!’ and ‘Dig here at your peril!’ signs, but with a sprinkle of magic, can reveal hidden treasures.

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