Schools get smarter, greener
In February 2008, the federal government announced the $14.7 billion Building the Education Revolution (BER) as part of its response to the global financial crisis. With a focus on ‘shovel-ready’ building projects, the plan was to address the need to replace and refurbish schools and in so doing create best-practice learning spaces. Construction is now well under way across the country, with a large number of school building projects already completed.
“The impact of the initiative has been reverberating across the education, design and construction sectors since the announcement,” says Clare Newton, an architect with a background in the teaching and practice of architectural construction and design, and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne.
“One of the reasons is that there has been little time for clients, users, communities and designers to be involved in the process. And because of the short time-frames, template designs – which had previously been rejected – have now been successfully implemented here and in other Australian states,” Ms Newton says.
For the past three years Ms Newton has been working with a team of academic researchers with expertise in architecture, sustainability and education to investigate the influence of innovative and sustainable school building designs on middle-school education in Victoria.
The Smart Green Schools team includes experts from the state Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, H2O Architects, Hayball Leonard Stent Architects, Mary Featherston Design, McBride Charles Ryan, McGauran Giannini Soon Architects, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, Rubida Research, and Sustainable Built Environments.
According to Ms Newton, Australia has become internationally recognised for innovative learning spaces and shows an increasing willingness to move beyond the classroom to adopt an approach where teachers work in teams with the students as the focus.
The Smart Green Schools project focuses on understanding the links between design, sustainability and pedagogy within 21st century learning spaces. “Its aims are both practical and theoretical”, says Ms Newton. “Practically, there is an urgent need for current and local data on school design to ensure effective spending of government funds on facilities that support learning. Theoretically, we are advancing thinking about how schools, as complex systems, engage with contemporary design, curriculum and environmental issues.”
The project has been supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant, financial and in-kind contributions from partner organisations and University funding and, in October received recognition for excellence in the University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor’s Engagement Awards. A follow-up ARC Linkage Grant is beginning to explore the design of prefabricated learning environments while a third is proposed to focus on recent work constructed under the BER initiative.
“Educators and architects have been debating the advantages and disadvantages of template designs for schools for some time,” says Ms Newton. “While some experts welcome the flexibility to accommodate new constructivist pedagogies, others believe that the template designs were too conservative. The issues are inherently complex.”
This range of views was expressed by educators and architects who attended the first Talking Spaces symposium held to discuss the BER and learning spaces at the University over three days in late October 2009.
“The roll-out of the BER and the widespread use of template designs to construct and reconfigure teaching spaces has provided an unprecedented moment in Australia’s history of school design,” says Newton, “one that provides a unique research opportunity.”
Building on preliminary seed funding provided by the University of Melbourne to test research approaches, an expanded Smart Green Schools team plans to embark on an extensive research project to observe the different ways teaching is being delivered and computer technologies used in similar template spaces.
“This is the first time such a group, including experts from education, architecture, sustainability, construction and economics has come together to consider a holistic approach to assess the effectiveness of the new BER template learning spaces,” says Ms Newton.
“Using a mix of qualitative and quantitative research tools, an expanded Smart Green Schools team plans to apply an extensive evaluation framework that captures the research potential of this unique moment in the history of education facilities in Australia,” Ms Newton says.