Mark Freeman has recently been appointed to Partner at Gray Puksand.

He has more than 15 years experience in planning and design and is currently working on the DET inner city school project in Melbourne.

Architecture and Design spoke to him about the DET project, contemporary education facilities and why mentors are important.

Can you please tell A&D about the DET inner city school projects that you’re working on at the moment?

Our practice has been appointed to design two of several new inner city schools for the Department of Education and Training, in the inner suburbs of Melbourne.

A new high school will be developed on High Street, Prahran adjacent to the existing Melbourne Polytechnic campus.  This campus will be designed over numerous floors and provide a new model for developing multilevel education facilities in higher density inner urban environments. The school will provide all the necessary learning, specialist and support spaces consistent with those provided for new greenfield site schools, but configured in a vertical configuration.

A new primary school will also be developed on Albert Road, South Melbourne on the site of the existing Albert Park Signal Hall, amongst the grounds of Albert Park. Planning and design for this school will respond to the context and amenity offered by the numerous recreational and sporting facilities nearby, in addition to the adaptive re-use of the several existing buildings on site for contemporary education spaces. This larger site, surrounded by parkland and substantial vegetation, will most likely support a lower density one or two level design solution, considerate of maximising on-site opportunities for outdoor learning and recreation.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Each project provides unique opportunities, many of which arise from the challenges of site, context or pursuit of optimum flexibilities for multiple modes of learning.

As these projects are some of the first generation of contemporary inner city schools, it is critical the designs respond to the smaller site areas through due consideration of student access and movement, in addition to adequate provision of purposeful outdoor learning, recreation and gathering spaces.

The smaller nature of these sites requires exploration of optimum design solutions for distributing indoor learning and outdoor activity spaces over several levels, requiring consideration of vertical movement patterns of school students into and throughout the buildings. This contrasts with single level schools where student movement, gathering and dispersal are facilitated by defined horizontal movement paths and numerous egress points.

Outer suburban school sites are afforded larger areas of land, yet sometimes these remain undeveloped or poorly utilised. In contrast, designs for inner city schools must be able to support outdoor learning and recreational activities across numerous levels, through spaces such as decks, terraces, sky gardens and courtyards – an approach which has been successfully realised throughout Asia, Europe and the US through many successful exemplar schools.

You have undertaken an investigation of contemporary education facilities in Europe, Australasia and Asia – what key things did you learn from this?

Education has changed substantially over the course of the last decade, and will continue to do so, informed by broader cultural, social and economic forces, which will necessitate responsive, future-ready learning spaces that are capable of supporting students along their learning pathways.

Through visits to numerous countries and campuses, it is evident Australia continues to be amongst the countries at the forefront of developing exemplary education spaces and campuses, albeit with substantially smaller budgets, and at somewhat a smaller scale than those in other countries. What is more evident internationally is the successful transition of early horizontal school planning models to a more vertical campus model.

With land availability limited and higher site values, new campuses have been successfully developed within established inner city communities, with all the affordances and amenity of horizontal schools. If anything, a stronger sense of community is evident, due to closer physical proximity of learning spaces connected across numerous floors, contrasting with a vastly dispersed horizontal campus building.

These new models of school design require consideration of new spaces such as atriums, integrated sky gardens and green roof terraces, enhancing amenity, encouraging incidental movement and assisting in establishing and supporting strong communities of learners.

You take part in the MSD mentoring programme – how did you become involved in this?

As a graduate of Melbourne University in 2001 and after several years in the industry working on a broad variety of education projects within our practice, I felt an obligation to return to the place of my early architectural learning to share my experiences, advice and interest in the development of future graduates. It is crucial architectural students engage with our industry as early as possible in their formal education to complement their campus experiences with exposure to real world experiences and scenarios.

Why are mentors important in the design industry?

In our industry, particularly in the formative years of our career, it is critical we are immersed in opportunities that might challenge and test our abilities and ideas. During these times, it is the mentors or people around you whom you turn to for advice, guidance and support. In particular, the ability to benefit from a peer review of your work continues the practice of informal tutoring and learning through doing.

By establishing a network of trusted mentors, both within your practice and amongst your peers, you have the ability to benefit from others’ learned experiences – to clarify an approach, to receive an informal critique of an idea or position, or to gain advice on the direction in which you wish to pursue your career.

What do you wish you had been told at the start of your career, that you had to learn the hard way?

I wish I had been told that the economy would not always be rising, with the architectural community being susceptible to the vagaries of the share market. Also that your university education was only the start of your professional learning journey with no limitation to the experiences, opportunities and conversations arising from being part of the design community.