A new model for delivering city-based learning

Great spaces need a lot of different components to be successful – a contextually connected location, an appropriate physical site, a procurement champion who dreams of a better future, committed and creative professionals and builders to translate ideas to paper and concrete, and finally passionate users who think beyond the physical space, to the possibilities. Adelaide Botanic High School has all of these things and more, and the result is incredible.

It’s not every day I am blown away by the latest hyped-up piece of public education architecture. Having been lucky enough to visit probably over a hundred schools over the last twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of different spaces. Open plan learning, cellular classrooms, self-directed learner pods, maker spaces, from oversized barns to hole in the wall snugs… There’s a lot of variety out there. But this school shows it is not about the spaces, but the activities happening there, combining to encourage students to be their best, whatever their individual best may be.

I first heard about this school, located in the Adelaide CBD, in 2017. Its unique planning utilising it’s fantastic, albeit concise, location amongst the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, next to the University of Adelaide, Art Galleries, Museums, and the Adelaide Zoo, was the first hint that this government school was going to be different.

The site means that the school can work in partnership with allied businesses within their immediate neighbourhood. The school spends 20% of their time learning within the wider precinct, through their numerous connections which are all managed through one single point of contact at the school. Sometimes students go out to businesses, sometimes people come to them. It was great to see the school really capitalising on their location, in an open and accessible way.

Being on a very compact site (at just 7,300 sqm!), the school has to find other ways to connect with the outdoors. The glass facade, with treetop and city views from nearly every room, certainly helps. Also, being set within the Botanic Gardens, the whole parkland becomes the students playground. It was interesting to note that the students have said they don’t feel the need to go outside – all the space they need is contained within the building. And part of the architects challenge was to help the internal spaces give a sense of ‘home’ when the building is located within a very public park.

The curriculum planning is also really interesting, with a whole day (Wednesday) devoted to studio time – basically project based learning. These studio sessions allow students to tackle real problems, and are not graded against the Australian curriculum, so provide students the opportunity to fail, grow, discover and create. All curriculum at the school is designed to make connections between theory and real life. Subjects are grouped into broad categories of STEM, Global Perspectives, Lifestyle Choices and the Arts. Crucially, every day commences with at least 45 minutes of staff preparation time (one hour and forty on Wednesdays). Every day, staff come together and discuss how they are going to both team teach (teach together) and teach teams (plan together). It was a vital ingredient of this new building that the education was thoroughly planned, before the building design was commenced. This successful interface between the design of the learning programs and the design of the learning spaces, is evident in every well-used class space, nook, stage, lab and terrace of the building.

You may think it’s strange to come this far into a post written by an architect and not hear about the physical building. Well that’s the kind of incredible creation this one is. The scaffolding framework of people, place and pedagogy is so intrinsically linked to the success of the project that is an essential part of the architecture. But just as these elements are so evolved, so are the architectural concepts. So let’s talk space…

Each of the seven floors of the building has a slightly different floorplate. Generic Learning Areas are interspersed at each location with various types of specialist spaces – Science Labs, Art Studios, STEM Labs, Design Centres. Sometimes these were individual rooms, sometimes they were two rooms together. Sometimes they were heavily serviced with equipment, sometimes they contained loose furniture with a wet area floor and a sink on the edge. In amongst these large spaces were various sizes of forums,  thinking spaces, reflection zones, individual pods and  study booths. The variety and possibilities for learning were evident through every space.

Another interesting detail was the visibility (or transparency) of learning, both within the building and from outside in. Where rooms were defined, they were mostly defined with glass sliding operable walls or doors so students could see between the spaces to what was happening in adjacent areas. Across the atrium, glass fronted pods show learning in place. The building is predominantly wrapped in glass so the public can see what is happening in the space – learning is not secreted away from public view, but is a positive activity to be celebrated.

Utilising an existing six-storey building on site with an adjacent seven-storey new build, the complex comes together as one facility, housing all the functions of a large school. As we walked past on our way to our conference in the morning we struggled straight away to pick which part of the building was old and which was new. As a self-confessed greenie, it was fantastic to see the reuse of the old office building, saving that embodied energy, while still making the school legible as one landmark. Oh, and did I mention the incredible multi-storey terrace / central stair from the entrance up to the third floor? All bathed in a beautiful light from the ETFE translucent ‘cushion’ roof, which expands and contracts with the weather to provide consistent light and thermal control.

Lastly, the detailing and precision of the internal finishes is the best in a government project that I have ever seen. Every corner, step and wall is distinctly considered. The fixed joinery particularly, is stunning, and it was so heartening to see the care put into the smallest of details. I’ve not seen anything like it in a public school before, where, as the Minister or Education John Gardner noted, the building transcends time and space. The building must ‘still leave room for beauty’. He believes learning spaces should be inspirational, comfortable and visually engaging, and this one certainly is.

If you can’t tell from the above, I was impressed. Not just in the physical design, but in the way the learners (students, teachers and community) were considered through the whole planning process. The whole design is so specifically created. While it may not be for every learner, like every school, that’s kind of the point. The variety of spaces, connections to context, technology and learning opportunities means that students are encouraged to adapt and grow to their own potential. It will be interesting to see how the school functions when it reaches its full capacity of 1250 students, rather than its current 350.

The DfE has done an incredible job of bringing together the latest research into learning styles and methods, and the design team (Cox Architecture and DesignInc) have translated the latest of educational theories seamlessly into real world practice. Thank you for opening your spaces to us.

ABHS has an amazing amount of information on their website. I recommend having a look if you want to know more.

Happy inner-city learning!

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