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Vertical schools – the only way is up

WGE’s Vinh Le recently spoke to the Property Council of Australia (PCA) about the new trend towards vertical schools in urban areas. 

As people move back into our city centres, vertical schools are rising up across the country. But they require a rethink of how we use space, says Wood & Grieve Engineers’ Vinh Le.

Melbourne’s first vertical school, Haileybury’s city campus, welcomed its first cohort of students in January. In nearby Prahran, the Victorian Government’s $25 million high school on Swinburne University’s old campus is taking shape.

In Sydney, the NSW Government has plans to rebuild Parramatta’s Arthur Phillip High School into a 17-storey tower, while another high-rise high school in Surry Hills will cater to 1,200 students.

And in Perth, St George’s Anglican Grammar school opened the doors on its new vertical school in 2015.

“Ninety-nine per cent of Japanese schools are vertical and there’s a reason for that. They don’t have enough land in Japan to do anything else,” says Le (pictured), WGE’s electrical project engineer who specialises in vertical schools.

“But in Australia we’ve only started thinking about vertical schools as more people move back into the city, and more people embrace apartment living as land values rise.”

Le has worked on both the Haileybury and Prahran vertical schools, and makes a distinction between schools that have two or three storey buildings within their campus and “true” vertical schools.

“Vertical schools squeeze everything – sports facilities, teaching space and administrative functions – into the one building”.

Le says Australia’s big challenge is that our education standards “haven’t caught up yet”.

“We are used to single or two storey buildings with football fields and playgrounds outside. In this environment, you don’t need to allow for air-conditioning, for example. But that doesn’t work in a vertical school, as temperatures need to be carefully managed in both winter and summer.”

Le says there are many design and logistical considerations for vertical schools that project teams are just getting their heads around.

Consider pick up and drop off points. “In a standard school, there is lots of land for buses and parents’ cars. But in a CBD environment this can be a challenge,” he says.

The 10-storey Haileybury city campus, formerly home to a National Australia Bank call centre, features two levels of basement car parks with dedicated pick up and drop off points.

The project team recognised they couldn’t have parents idling their engines in a closed environment, and so developed an exhaust management program in conjunction with building services and security. “It wasn’t an easy task,” Le says.

Safety and security considerations are also more important in a vertical school, and engineers are incorporating high-tech security lockdown functions into their designs to thwart would-be terrorists.

Moving students around, and bringing them together for assemblies, can also be a daunting task in a high rise school.

“At Haileybury, the early learning students are on the lower floors, and the older students – who can better manage lifts – are on the top floors.”

Le says “four is the magic number” of storeys for a vertical school, because students can comfortably navigate the building by stairs.

He says the four-storey Prahran High School, slated to open in 2019, will be easy for the students to navigate, and the building “has been designed with an atrium and large staircase so students can gather for assemblies too.”

But how do we avoid raising our students in concrete jungles?

Le says good design is the key.

“At Prahran, students will have access to an outdoor learning area and gymnasium on level four, terrace balconies overflowing with greenery and an open atrium at the centre to let in lots of light.”

Haileybury’s campus includes 2,500 sqm of outdoor recreation space on the third and fourth levels, and “the kids love it”, he says.

“It doesn’t feel like you are indoors at all – it feels like an elevated park. And it’s got great views of the city.”

This story was first published on the PCA website.