Conference site visits

One of the best parts of a LEA regional conference are the site visits. I really enjoy visiting different spaces around the region and seeing not only how different designers work within their challenges, but also how learning spaces are evolving and adapting to suit different pedagogies and thoughts of practice. This year I visited four schools, which were all unique but shared a focus on collaboration and removing physical spatial barriers. The four spaces I visited were relatively new, so this seems to be reflective of current plans within NSW to experiment with different types of space.

The first site I visited was the Harbord Public School, procured through the Government Architect. We started our tour in a new double-height library space interestingly configured around a large tiered forum, which unfortunately struggled to fit our non-primary-student-sized legs. There were a number of different furniture options for small group and individual reading/learning spaces and a lovely feeling of light through the large screened windows. Although there didn’t seem to be many of them, the books were located in numerous different areas adding to the choice offered by the setting.

The upstairs learning area layout was really interesting. Although there were traditional-style class spaces, each of these linked directly to an oversized corridor/break-out space with a variety of furniture and pod spaces for group activity. Students were encouraged to use all of their environment and move from space to space, to find where they learned best. This showed limited concentration on formalised instruction, and more opportunity for students to explore and discover their creativity. When speaking to the students about their favourite spaces, they seemed to enjoy this potential for using the space that worked for them today, knowing it could be somewhere else tomorrow. I enjoyed seeing students having this agency over their learning journey, and crafting the skills to realise the impact between space and learning.

Following this visit, we headed over to Stella Maris College, designed by Fulton Trotter. This library / science / staff building was a neat insertion into a tight space on the site, and reflected the coastal environment through the use of different shades of blue and natural tones both internally and externally to create a cohesive light filled space on all three levels. The ground floor design of the staff zone was a sophisticated response to current needs for collegiality and transparency within the working environment. The design of the furniture and fittings created a space where staff wanted to spend more time and share ideas and resources.

The library space, with the most beautiful polished concrete floor I’ve ever seen, again managed to pack a punch in furniture and space choice for students to create their own learning experience. There were options for students to learn individually in single-person isolated LOTE booths, a mixture of comfortable chairs, stools and bench seats amongst the bookshelves, and large glass enclosed rooms for small and large groups. Again I appreciated that students had the choice to work where they felt most comfortable and inspired, dependent on their current activity.

The third floor science rooms also shared facilities, with larger theory spaces sharing experimental zones and thus efficiently resourcing space on a tight site. I liked the glass viewing panels through to the building’s services as an additional teaching tool, utilising the whole of the building as a learning resource.

My third site visit was to another Government Architect building, the Bellevue Hill Public School. This expanded on the concept of open plan learning in a more extreme way than the previous day’s visits, with whole floors of open space. Areas were partitioned off with furniture (loose and fixed), acoustic panels and large glazed sliding doors. This gave a unique variety of space where classes could flow and ebb as required.

However in this instance it appeared the actual use of space was led by staff – when they needed a presentation area they would bring their class to that zone, when they needed an area for small group work they would bring their students to that zone etc. So a different way of modelling the flexibility of learning settings, which seemed to work well for this school. The classes were still under-utilised as the building has only recently commenced, so it will be interesting to see how it works at full capacity. But the teachers we spoke to were on board with the new modes of learning, which is always an encouraging start.

Our fourth and final visit was to the renovation of an existing small classroom block at St Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School by Leaf Architecture. This was just simply delightful. Admittedly the architects had a beauty of a building to start with (those windows! that brickwork! that ceiling height!) but the clever material choices inside created a exciting and reverent space for learning.

Again, a semi-open-plan concept created class spaces opening onto a large break-out verandah space with comfortable seating and working areas. In between ‘classes’ were a set of smaller glass enclosed work areas, for students or teachers. There was a great flow and transparency through the building which I think encouraged a growth mindset amongst the learners, as evidenced by the literature on the walls.

Additionally utilising a rooftop area for a STEM/Multipurpose Room enhanced the learning opportunities on a very small site. I’m sure the students don’t notice how lucky they are to have these incredible views! I liked that the design of this renovation utilised every part of the existing building, while complementing the unique existing architecture.

As a Perthite, the site planning of the schools I visited in Sydney was really interesting. From my perspective, the sites are small and tucked into tight residential areas. ( I can’t even imagine the builders access issues!) Therefore each building had to make the most efficient use of space, with creative play ground spaces around, under and over the buildings. But what I enjoyed most was how the heritage at each site was celebrated, telling the long term story of the evolution of both the physical and pedagogical journey of each unique school.

The site visits are really what sets the LEA Conference apart from other conferences. We rarely get the chance to visit so many different spaces and see first-hand how they get used and how they work within their constraints of site, building and pedagogy. It is one thing to see photos of buildings and spaces, but another one entirely to walk through them and see the changing light and hear the student interaction and feel the energy of learning. To me, that’s what learning about architecture is all about.

And just a final note on the photos above. At most of the schools we attended we were unable to take photos of the students, which makes sense in these days of privacy and electronic data. Hence why there are no, or limited, photos of in-use classes. So you’ll have to trust my words above that the spaces were getting used as intended! There are also more pics of the spaces on my Instagram account.

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