Hamilton Wilson, Education Specialist, Wilson Architects, shares his insights into the future trends of education architecture and why vertical schools have a big future. This piece is part one of a three-part series. Lead image: William Jones college Preparatory High School in Chicago by Perkins+Will. Source: Perkins+Will


At no other time has our education system had to deal with such rapid change across so many fronts.  Schools in urban areas, in particular, realise they need to respond to the effects of increasing urban densification — the NSW Department of Education and Communities, for example, is planning the first public high-rise school to replace Parramatta Public School and Arthur Phillip High School (pictured below).


The challenge as communities grow in more densely populated areas is to meet the demand for student placements in already space-pressured facilities. Organic growth in schools has led to fragmentation of student services and reduction in student experience. Outdoor play in many instances has been reduced to satisfy demand for additional student places. 

This strategy is clearly not sustainable.  Schools need to think more imaginatively about the core delivery of curriculum as well as the wellbeing of the child in facilities that can deliver a range of positive learning experiences in a smaller footprint. 

The challenge with vertical schools is for the school to still feel connected to its overall community of learners so students do not feel isolated from each other and their teachers.  They still need to be connected to the environment without the sense of being sealed in a high rise as many workers within cities unfortunately experience.   

Even new schools with generous grounds should be reconsidering the way they develop sites.  Sprawling single storey buildings may have an economic driver but long covered walks can lead to learning communities feeling isolated from each other. Furthermore, lower capital costs often result in higher operating costs as well as disconnected and unproductive student-directed learning spaces.

The contemporary flipped classroom model (where content can be accessed anywhere and class time is used for analysis and discussion) requires places for students to extend learning with their peers, such as break-out and group study spaces, as well as quiet spaces for individual study.

The idea of recompressing schools has the potential to enhance collaborative learning and create richer, more dynamic learning environments. A better resolution may be to develop two-storey and higher schools with more immediate and direct access to places where students can learn with their peers.  

Successful vertical schools — a whole-of-school model

Much has been said about next generation learning spaces, with many great examples of how space, furniture and technology can enable flexible contemporary pedagogies.  These have usually been expensive and rolled out as specialist learning spaces.  The major problem with having only a couple of spaces on campus is that academics and teachers often cannot program when they use them, which leads to them opting out of their use entirely. 


Photography by Brent Hardcastle

QUT’s new Science and Engineering Centre (pictured above) built a critical mass of collaborative teaching and learning spaces so that a significant number of academics are now working in a flipped classroom learning environment.  This has also resulted in high demand by students for social learning spaces directly outside the classroom. 

Brisbane Boys College (BBC)  has recently completed a four storey junior and middle school where whole-of-school cohorts ‘own’ whole levels.  Teacher support as well as pastoral support is delivered in social learning/classroom break-out spaces, as well as in classrooms that can rapidly flex between 25 to 90 students.  Students are encouraged to occupy breakout spaces at recess times and classrooms can be opened up as teachers are always present (pictured below).



Ongoing research of these spaces by BBC and Wilson Architects has seen a shift in the uptake of the embedded active and social learning technology by teachers, the implementation of larger class team teaching, as well as increased use of a broader range of learning modalities. 

Maximising limited space

As well as creating flexible classroom and social spaces, vertical schools can increase efficient use of space and encourage a sense of community by sharing amenities such as auditoriums and sporting facilities. Even circulation spaces can be used as break out spaces for the whole school.

Maximising outdoor space through clever design, and using innovative landscape responses inside such as internal courtyards, vertical and roof gardens, and spaces that can transition from indoor to outdoor spaces and back can create a strong connection with the outdoors. Green spaces are also an effective way to improve air quality, and enhance the internal school environment.


Classrooms in the BBC project can easily transition from a smaller size to a larger room accommodating more students


Technology and fittings for a whole-of-school model

There are several issues worth considering when designing the technology and fittings to enable a whole-of-school model.  At BBC, furniture was prototyped to achieve maximum flexibility for a diverse range of classroom settings, and the acoustics were calibrated to support active learning as well as the ability to open up the rooms for larger cohort classes. 


BBC photography by Christopher Frederick Jones

In relation to technology, higher tech hardware solutions are generally easier for staff to use but considerably more expensive.  Cheaper software solutions are sometimes not as flexible or user friendly.  Using as much off-the-shelf consumer products as possible with a combination of hardware and software, the school has managed to increase usability and functionality without significant increases in costs.  These results are important as they suggest a more sustainable future in retrofitting classrooms in the future. 

The school has also put into place the technology to collect energy data and enable the students to manage energy use.  This has turned the building into a live laboratory to educate students in environmental sustainability.   

The vertical school is a viable response to the challenges of education design in densely populated areas. However, other schools can also gain benefits from considering the same strategies to increase their efficiency and build a stronger community. 



About the author:

Hamilton Wilson is Managing Director at Wilson Architects. He is a fourth generation architect with a strong interest in the education sector, and a fascination with university libraries and learning environments.