Opinion: Integrate community into the design of schools

Opinion: Integrate community into the design of schools

Education is the foundation of community and the framework of our society. As such, the buildings which house our educational facilities should be at the heart of our community, designed to offer suitable spaces for the community to congregate, interact and collaborate.

As the population density of Australia’s capital cities increases, we no longer have the luxury of designing single-use buildings or facilities which are occupied for a small proportion of the day. Schools are a prime example of community buildings which can benefit from a holistic approach to design: by considering the school in the wider context in which it stands means that both pupils and the community will benefit equally from the building.

Schools are home to wonderful facilities which can be shared with the broader community outside the hours of 9am and 3pm, and likewise our cities contain a diverse range of specialist facilities that should not needlessly be replicated within a school. In order to benefit as many individuals as possible, the community’s relationship with the school should be considered, and their needs integrated, from the initial design phase.

While this demonstrates the potential for forward-thinking design to meet the needs of a growing population, it’s also a way of generating community cohesion from the early stages of an area’s development. It offers a space where people feel immediately welcome, with facilities which are useful or enjoyable, where they can interact with others in their community. And more importantly, it encourages new opportunities for students and the broader community to learn from each other. There are also obvious spatial, environmental and monetary benefits in not needlessly replicating facilities which can be ultimately shared.

A prime example of this is a public lecture taking place in a school hall or library– both students who attend and local residents have the opportunity to come together in a shared space and learn from each other. Additionally, the school may have facilities which are missing from the broader community, such as a hall, sports ground, pool or gymnasium, which can be occupied by the community when not in use by the school. Similarly, if the school has a library, it can be made available to the public to attend guest lectures there, giving rise to opportunities for cross-cultural learning for students and teachers who may stay in the vicinity after hours.

This can also work vice versa. If there are community sports facilities or a community hall which is not in use during the day, the school could utilise these spaces.  Similarly, students can benefit immensely from the learning opportunities presented by public facilities outside of school grounds, such as music studios or art galleries in the vicinity.  

South Melbourne Primary School, designed by Hayball, illustrates this thought process in action. When completed it will be Victoria’s first vertical school, rising to a height of five storeys – and, most importantly, community integration is at the heart of its design. As well as being a primary school for 525 children, it will also be a multi-use educational hub: home to an early learning centre, community rooms, as well as indoor and outdoor sports facilities to be shared with the public. With 3,000 new residents flocking to the Fishermans Bend precinct each year, the vision of the project is to deliver community infrastructure which will improve accessibility and connectivity in the area.

Finally, the location of the facilities within the building is crucial to developing this sense of community. For example, if you’re integrating an early learning centre or canteen / public café into the design, where in the building should this facility be? It could be at the very entrance to the building, to make it as accessible as possible, or it might be at the back of the school to draw the community in and through the space.

Facilities can also be grouped together, so that the learning centre, community library, café, and sports halls are in the same area of the building. As well as ensuring the community can see the facilities in use, it also enables people to gather in one place, increasing the opportunities for people to get to know one another.

Furthermore, the location of the facilities within a building can be an unobtrusive way of demarcating the different areas within a school. Safety is always a key priority in schools, and the design must ensure the security of students in their place of study without jeopardising the community’s feeling of it being a shared space. This can be achieved through an open and welcoming public entrance, with private areas separated from public spaces by distance, landscaping or design features.

More subtle than fences and walls, the layout itself enables visitors to know intuitively the areas they can access.
With clever design, forward planning and a focus on integration, schools can act as a central learning hub which draws in students and the wider community, providing spaces for mutual and collaborative learning.

David Tordoff is the Studio Director at Hayball’s Sydney office. David is an accomplished architect with numerus awards to his name including the Sulman Medal for public architecture, a National Award for public architecture and multiple UDIA awards. David’s work focusses on creating bespoke solutions that enhance the spaces in which we live and learn, he is currently designing numerous new education facilities within NSW.