Australia’s oldest continuous family architecture firm Wilson Architects has picked up one of the world’s most prestigious education architecture awards in association with Architects North.

The team’s James Cook University (JCU) Education Central project was awarded the 2014 Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) New Construction Major Facility award, announced as part of the 2014 CEFPI Annual Conference and Expo in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Praising Education Central for embracing a sustainable approach to facility design while providing students with a modern learning facility, the jury congratulated the design team for recognising “the critical importance of changing the way teachers are trained, and bringing the profession into a 21st Century context with all that entails.”

The multi-million dollar building is located in Townsville, Queensland, and was designed to be a new ‘front door’ to the university.

We took the opportunity to create an environment that better reflects JCU’s tropical identity, and builds a strong learning community a combination of social and active learning spaces that keeps students’ needs at the heart of the campus,” said Wilson Architects’ managing director and lead architect, Hamilton Wilson.

Aiming to rethink a university campus based on the idea of community, the architects approached the project by first having authentic conversations with students and staff. A comprehensive research program involving interviews and area and use studies was carried out, covering all areas of the student experience, including how they wanted to interact with each other, as well as what kinds of learning support and services they preferred.

These insights formed the basis of a plan to revitalise the campus with the JCU Education Central at its heart and teacher training located ‘front and centre’. Continuous undercover connections create links between buildings and create opportunities for spontaneous interaction between students and staff.

The building design draws on both traditional Queenslander cues and contemporary tropical design. For instance, sleek panels of vertically jointed anodised aluminium composite panels on the north-side allude to traditional Queenslander VJ lining motifs.

At the lower levels, embossed ceramic tiles provide colour, a more intimate scale and tactile experience, harking back to the pressed metal ceilings or decorative floorcoverings often used in traditional Queenslander houses. Blade columns of shuttered off-form concrete echo the materiality of the prominent Eddie Koiki Mabo library (James Birrell).

In keeping with the needs of an education facility, materials were selected for their durability, performance, aesthetic quality and relationship to existing products and context. Metal cladding is used on the southern facade, referencing vernacular cladding and roofing, while accents of timber for benches and seats add warmth and tactility to the experience.

Response to the building’s design strategies have been positive, with Professor Nola Alloway, Dean at JCU’s College of Arts, Society and Education saying Education Central has exceeded all expectations in “creating a ‘sticky campus’”.

“Education Central provides opportunities to teach more efficiently, particularly in the technology-enhance active learning spaces. Thus, networked and connected learning, hallmarks of next generation learning paradigms, have been coupled with longer-term budgetary savings,” Professor Alloway says.

CEFPI is a worldwide organisation sharing knowledge, experiences and best practices in planning, designing and building great learning environments. The aim of its awards program is to enhance the profile of design and building development of educational facilities.

Images: Christopher Frederick Jones