Vertical schools to showcase Australian learning innovation

Robin Sweasey

Project Director

Australia and New Zealand

The increase in population density in urban locations and land scarcity has caused a significant escalation in the rise of vertical school projects, either in planning or under development, in major Australian capital cities.

Vertical schools are characterised as multi-level buildings blending teaching pedagogies and age cohorts across science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM) disciplines.

A notable increase in significant high-rise school projects has occurred within the past three years in Australia. Globally, vertical schools are a relatively new concept. Australia is therefore well positioned to pioneer a new concept of innovative education delivery within a vertical environment.

Urban locations need vertical schools

Australia’s population is escalating with the majority of growth concentrated within established inner-urban suburbs of capital cities. Land is scarce in these areas and high-density living needs to be sustainable. Increasingly, families with school-age children are residing in these suburbs and moving to apartment-style dwellings close to major inner-city employment hubs. Inner-urban areas simply don’t have the land capacity to accommodate schools in traditional horizontal configurations. Vertical schools are increasingly becoming a viable solution to meet the educational demands within these communities.

Demand grows for inner city schools

The numbers presented by state governments across the country to accommodate the educational needs of growing inner-city populations are significant. According to the New South Wales government, by 2031 the state needs over 160,000 additional public school places to accommodate demand for kindergarten to Year 12 students. In Victoria, the Victorian Education Minister has recently stated that by 2022 an additional 90,000 public school places will be required. The Victorian government is currently progressing the biggest school building program in the history of the state to address the required capacity.

Building vertical school prototypes

Every new vertical school exists within a unique context and specific set of circumstances, hence there is no standard design. However, there are common concepts the design of a vertical school needs to incorporate to deliver a successful learning environment.  These include easy and efficient access to public infrastructure – particularly at drop-off and pickup times during the school day. Learning spaces should integrate indoor and outdoor spaces, facilitating collaborative, immersive and technology-enabled learning models necessary to prepare students for their adult lives.

STEAM disciplines all require flexible and adaptive learning spaces that can accommodate rapid changes in technology-enabled learning. Play and sports facilities, both indoor and outdoor, are necessary for all age groups. Amenities such as canteens foster interaction and engagement amongst students and staff.  The use of stairways rather than lifts facilitates efficient movement between levels to maximise learning time whilst promoting healthy activity levels. Effective interaction with adjoining community, commercial, retail and cultural activities can also help create a hub and social environment across age cohorts and demographics, both before and after school hours.

Linking communities

For many decades in Australia’s rural areas, schools were the heart of the community with road networks and facilities built around them to foster interaction and social engagement. Today, there are parallels which can be drawn with the positioning of vertical schools in city areas. Schools facilitate important social links and cohesion within and between communities.

Urban land areas with high-rise dwellings are servicing the needs of dense populations in small areas. Vertical schools, strategically integrated within these zones play a crucial role in strengthening the social fabric of the community. Australia is considered a thriving multi-cultural nation. Schools can be a catalyst for diverse cultures to cohabitate in a unified learning environment. If modern educational facilities are provided in city areas, families from various nationalities and backgrounds will consider them viable, liveable alternatives.

Community engagement and stakeholder consultation

Vertical schools are often sensitive undertakings within their communities and electorates. Inner-urban suburbs have existed for considerable periods. Often, the presence of high density accommodation coexists alongside longstanding residents who recall, with fondness, the suburbs historical characteristics. This can generate differing perspectives and agendas. Extensive consultation with all stakeholders is imperative if a broad sense of community ownership is to be achieved. Professional educators must also provide input into the design, as they will ultimately teach in the completed facility.

Sophisticated project management is essential

With billions of dollars being spent by state governments building vertical schools, sophisticated project management expertise is critical. Innovative procurement methods are often required to deliver against accelerated timeframes to meet academic year commencements. Comprehensive consultation is required to build a common sense of ownership across the project. Project management skillsets are required that combine advanced technical skillsets with high emotional intelligence and soft skills. As an example, the presence of vertical schools in city centers means a robust program of consultation is required with a complex network of stakeholders – both internal and external to the project. The inputs from this process need to be integrated into the project so that broad acceptance of the proposed design is assured. With such a diverse group of stakeholders, the ability to manage sensitive communications alongside a focus on cost and program parameters is essential. This requires the most advanced communication skills within the project management repertoire of disciplines.

Sophisticated project management delivery provides a framework to seamlessly manage the numerous stakeholders involved in complex projects alongside the various technical aspects of delivery. Setting clear objectives and expected outcomes is imperative to ensure projects are successful from the onset. Accountability, benchmarking of cost data and global best practice management techniques are necessary for all phases of the project delivery. Building Information Modeling is increasingly playing a central role in how clients can be more intrinsically involved in complex projects such as vertical schools.

Australia’s first successful vertical school

The vertical school concept was first introduced into Australia in the mid-seventies. St Andrews Cathedral School was built in the Sydney CBD and is a successful vertical school model. Defining features of this established school include its location in the middle of the CBD district, transport accessibility (road, rail and buses), and its ability to integrate a wide range of state-of-the-art next generation learning spaces including performance spaces, visual arts, a design centre, sports facilities and external facilities for outdoor activities.

Learning in the 21st century

In a rapidly changing world, the way we learn is constantly evolving. There is a growing demand for school-age students to learn collaborative, flexible and interactive problem-solving skillsets to equip them for the societal challenges they will face in adult life.  School facilities need to adapt and reflect these changes. Vertical schools are an ideal solution to meet the ever-shifting needs of communities whilst generating social cohesion. They are set to revolutionise learning in the 21st century as a new paradigm to accommodate expanding inner-city populations. Australia has an extraordinary opportunity to be at the forefront of globally innovative education delivery through its willingness to embrace the vertical school concept.