The Queen visits Clontaf Aboriginal College, Ngulla Mia Boarding Facilities, WA

Published: Tuesday 29 November 2011

The task of designing and building a boarding house is a rare privilege. While tertiary student housing is on the increase, the concept of boarding during secondary education remains a challenge for families, schools and education systems throughout Australia. The nature of our expansive land necessitates options for young people to leave their families and home communities and seek opportunities for secondary education supported by boarding facilities. This is a huge decision made by parents and one not to be underestimated in the context of a young person's life. 

EIW Architects have been working with the Clontarf Aboriginal College for the past 6 years, establishing a master plan for the future development of the campus nestled against the banks of the Canning River in Waterford, an inner city suburb south of Perth. The site has a long history since being established by the Christian Brothers in 1901 as a boys' orphanage.  This included being used by the RAAF during World War II, a Convent for the Sisters of Mercy, a treatment centre for adolescents, and since 1986, a Catholic College for aboriginal students from across Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Supported by the Catholic Education Commission in WA and engaging successful programmes such as the Clontarf Football Academy (AFL) and the Clontarf Girls Foundation (basketball), the College has become an exemplary educational institution in furthering the support and education of aboriginal boys and girls.

A primary outcome of the master planning process was to encourage the establishment of a boarding facility on site, thus relieving many of the students of daily travel from two small boarding houses located in North Fremantle and North Beach. Given the daily rigours of sports training before and after school, the disruptive nature of travelling each day and the disjointed nature of living in disparate groups compromised the students' learning. The decision to establish a residential facility for 120 students on site could not have been done without strong partnerships between the College, Catholic Education, BHP Billiton, state and federal governments.

Ngulla Mia ('my house' in Noongar) is designed to respond to the social intricacies of aboriginal students. Coming from strong family groups, often from remote communities, these students thrive on peer support and strong friendships. Single rooms were not considered an approach that supported these intricacies. Instead, shared rooms for 2 students are the basic residential unit with  the ability for these to be easily opened up with sliding doors to an adjoining room providing a social grouping of 4 students. Each wing of Ngulla Mia has 5 of these groupings of 4 with a Supervisor's ensuited bedsit to each group of 20 students and each pairing of wings containing an apartment for House Parents.

Study areas are provided within each room, with a larger study nook designated for each wing. A sitting room with ground floor access out to an enclosed courtyard reinforces the aim of providing diverse areas for different size social groupings. Every student needs to find a place they feel comfortable in - whether to be alone, with a friend or a small group. Relationships have been considered in looking for opportunities throughout Ngulla Mia for these social spaces. Tutorial rooms are located adjacent to the feature games area and booths are located centrally to encourage study, playing a game, reading a book, browsing online, having a coffee or just chatting  with friends. All through Ngulla Mia there are settings for supporting strong relationship building and encouraging study.

The design avoids presenting a facility that says 'institution'. Long straight corridors are replaced with short, angled walls that in themselves can be furnished with soft seating. Natural light floods into all areas ensuring students can feel a sense of place in the environment they find themselves. The fluid shapes present in the carpet, furniture and central service core are inspired in material and colour by the riverside location. Consulting with the local Noongar representatives to give a strong sense of place was an important feature of the design theme. The softer colour palette contrasts by stronger colours in the rooms with the soft furnishings reflecting many of the WA regions where students are travelling from whether it be the Kimberleys, the Pilbara, the Goldfields, the South West or the Red Centre. Evoking the richness of these environments has been sensitively incorporated in each wing. Rammed earth walls have been used throughout to strongly evoke the land with timber panelling reflecting a natural affinity with the place.

Ngulla Mia sets a new standard in making a home for students. It isn't about control and discipline but about relationships and respect. It isn't about simply housing students but adding value to the educational environment they share with the College. EIW Architects has provided an outstanding facility that challenges all schools to reconsider what the nature of 'boarding' should mean to students in this new millennium. It was a thrill to have Her Majesty the Queen officially open the Ngulla Mia Boarding Facility on Thursday 27th October 2011 as part of her visit to Perth.

Philip Idle

EIW Architects