The concept of a leaf has always been meaningful to Daniel Smith. As a child, he developed a keen interest in trees, and a curious appreciation of their intricate forms. And when he took the leap and opened his own architectural practice in 2015, the word felt relevant yet again. “At that point, I was turning over a new leaf,” he admits. “And often, when working with schools, they're going through big changes, too. Architecture forces people to think not just about the space that they want, it's also about the structure of the organisation, how they're going to teach and learn – and how you're going to define pedagogy.”

Leaf Architecture was born out of the ambition to create a purposeful architectural practice with strong focus on pedagogy and education design. It was a natural progression for Daniel. Having landed a job right out of university, he gained extensive experience working on various educational projects, and when he attended a conference with Educational Learning Environments and saw Mary Featherston’s design of a primary school in Wooranna Park, he was hooked.

“It just blew my mind,” he recalls. “It was a school that had reduced student numbers, and they had a lot of space to play with. They really went to town and created the most amazing education facility. And so I got that taste of being able to be the connector between the emerging research and development across the country, and my clients.”

Another element that pulled Daniel deeper into the realm of educational design is its potential to drive meaningful change within the communities. “Imagine, if we were really intentional and focused on how best to educate our young people, to give them the skills for the future workplace at that point in time and bring them along on that education journey in an orchestrated manner and a carefully constructed space that actually reflects the pedagogy,” he enthuses. “Now that is powerful. And this is an opportunity that a country like Australia has. We're a first world country. We have the resources to do this, and we can.”

No wonder that 99% of the work Leaf Architecture does is, in fact, school projects. But by no means are they all the same. “On one job, we might be doing a library, and on another job, we might be doing an office block for the administration,” Daniel illustrates. “It could be a performing arts centre, a sports centre, an innovative learning environment, or a food tech space. It's kind of like getting a sample of really the best of a city and we're putting it onto a canvas.”

Perhaps because of that, Daniel points out that it’s important to take cues from other typologies – school children have many interests and stimuli competing for their attention, social media is a constant presence, and our delivery of education can at times be quite dry.

“If we flip and evolve some of these things, we can actually start to look at education and learning environments in very different ways,” Daniel says. “For instance, retail architecture is really strong at sort of luring you in. So, you've got that opportunity to inquire and start to explore different things. And if we think of our schools a little bit in that way, we can start to get kids a little bit more excited about the opportunities that school can afford them,” he offers an example. “We also often take cues from airports in terms of moving people around because we evacuate those buildings multiple times throughout the day – circulation is paramount and often underrated. And then if we use that sort of airport mentality and combine that with retail architecture, we actually start to get a lot of bang for buck in terms of moving people through a space and trying to draw and lower their curiosity.”

But it’s just not other architectural typologies Daniel suggests looking to in order to design successful education spaces. The future is another, absolutely crucial, consideration. “A child that is in kindergarten today, won't leave school until around 2035. And if we're basing a lot of our thinking on the 1980s – or whenever it is that we were educated – that's already vastly too late. I think it was Justin Trudeau who said `The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again’.”

“We've got to think a little bit more ahead and be really careful around each of those learning setting choices,” he says. “What do they actually need? What skill sets will they need to be able to adapt and evolve with over the course of – or irrespective of – their career? And we need to create space that will actually help them stay engaged. And I think we're really on a good pathway.”