The Australian educational and research landscape is witnessing a transformation, not just in curriculum and pedagogy, but also in the very design and function of its buildings. Just as we recognise our educational institutions as places of innovation and inspiration, so too are we recognising that their buildings must be the same. Gone are the days of popcorn ceilings and lino floors; we’re now entering an era driven by sustainability and a desire to contribute to the incredible legacy that these institutions will have on our population at large. 

This shift is fuelled by a confluence of factors that include stricter environmental regulations, a growing focus on resource conservation, and a collective desire to create healthy and inspiring learning environments; and are continually innovated upon by a driven architecture industry. There are a few key trends that are emerging in this space: 

Community engagement and education 

Sustainability isn't just about the buildings, it's about behavioural change. And by facilitating greater awareness and visibility of sustainability issues – as well as their solutions – architects are helping students of all ages become more aware. Within our educational buildings, we’re seeing the creation of more spaces dedicated to research, demonstration, and education on sustainability practices, such as renewable energy systems or water treatment plants. 

There’s also a growing movement towards the use of these spaces as the home grounds for community engagement programs that promote sustainability awareness and behaviour change within the broader community. 

Circular economy, circular education

As with many examples in our built environments, educational buildings are moving beyond a "take-make-dispose" model, and exploring ways to minimise waste and maximise resource recovery. 

This begins at the design stage, with buildings that are designed with modular components and easy-to-remove finishes to facilitate future renovations and material reuse. In many cases it also extends to the adaptive reuse of existing buildings, involving creative renovations that breathe new life into existing buildings. And finally, waste management programs that include both on-site management programs like compositing systems, and extend up the supply chain to third-party waste providers that prioritise recycling construction and demolition waste.

Living labs as integrated infrastructure

This trend is not a widespread reality just yet, but it’s a direction in which the industry is definitely expanding. As technology progresses, we will likely arrive at a point where our school or research buildings themselves are living laboratories; designed to test and implement more sustainable innovations.

These might include concepts like integrated hydroponic or aeroponic to grow fresh produce for the school cafeteria or local community. They can also impact energy use through innovations like on-site biodigesters that convert food waste or even wastewater into biogas, which can then be used to generate electricity or heat for the building. And with advanced water purification systems, wastewater can be treated for immediate reuse for toilets and irrigation. 

Smart buildings that help us learn

In buildings as heavily trafficked as schools or universities, technology can play a significant role in managing sustainability efforts. The difference between half flushes and full flushes can amount to thousands of litres of water saved every day, and similarly, movement-detective lights can save vast amounts of energy. 

Smart building systems are becoming more and more common in our educational buildings, and – again – can help contribute to behavioural change. By gathering data and feeding back on how people are using certain systems, they can be optimised in order to make the desired behaviour more appealing. As technologies that are freely available now, and are becoming increasingly more affordable and effective, we’ll see more and more smart building systems over the coming years. 

When it comes to sustainable trends in educational architecture, it’s not all about the building itself. By fostering a culture of sustainability within these institutions, we equip future generations with the knowledge and tools to tackle the environmental challenges we face. And it’s always important to remember that these buildings are not just places of learning, but hubs for innovation, reminding us that education isn't confined to textbooks, but extends to the very walls that house it. One thing is for certain, with these trends taking root, the future of our educational institutions is looking green. 

The 2024 Sustainability Awards jury is looking for innovative and functional designs that prioritise sustainability and community, while also delivering an outstanding visual appeal. 

Don't miss out on the opportunity to showcase your project and contribute to a better future. Click here for more information.

Image: Western Sydney University's Bankstown Campus by HDR and Lyons.