Going Vertical at South Melbourne Primary School

Published: Tuesday 23 April 2019

We have been hearing a great deal about vertical schools for the past few years. After flexible, agile, and adaptable; vertical schools were the next big innovation.

What better place to learn about this innovation than at South Melbourne Primary School, the first public vertical school in Victoria. This multi-award winning project was the site of LEA Victoria’s March 2019 event.

To help tease out the ideas and issues of a vertical school, Dr Scott Alterator led a panel discussion including Principal Noel Creece, Architect Richard Leonard, and Janet Bolitho from Port Places.

School and Community Engagement
The main emphasis of the panel discussion was the school’s impact on the community. The Principal indicated that there are many stories about their connections with the community.

Because of its compact footprint, the building has one main entry. This gives the Principal a unique opportunity. Each morning, Noel greets the students as they enter. They then circulate up to their learning spaces after the first bell. After drop-offs, their parents are welcomed to stay for tea and coffee at the school’s canteen.

The school was originally envisioned as self-sufficient. However, the City of Port Philip leveraged for more engagement between the school and community. They funded community facilities including a Maternal and Child Health Centre, Early Learning Centre, and community meeting rooms.

Shared School/Community Facilities such as the external forecourt, art, music, library, and gymnasium are located on the ground and first floor. Noel indicated that on a recent weekend, a family birthday party was taking place in the forecourt.

Without fences, it can be used by the public whenever school isn’t in session.

To Hellerup and Back
Scott asked the panel, “What opportunities are there in a vertical versus horizontal school?”

Richard Leonard indicated that there is not a great deal of difference between vertical and horizontal schools. Dr Julia Atkins believes that vertical schools provide more opportunities for interaction based on the reduced physical distance between learning neighbourhoods.

Of course, you also have to have one of these:


Hellerup School in Copenhagen by Arkitema Architects has become a model for vertical integration. At the heart of the building is a stair that provides tiered seating, gathering, and presentation opportunities.

Since then, it’s an unwritten rule that any school over one story must have a ‘Hellerup Stair.’  South Melbourne Primary School is no exception.

The outdoor ‘agora’ prevalent in horizontal schools has been replaced by a ‘vertical piazza’ at South Melbourne. The Hellerup Stairs are integral to this vertical space. They provide gathering opportunities as an integral part of the school’s learning environment.

The Vertical Learning Environment
The second, third, and fourth floors contain the school’s learning neighbourhoods.

Each of these floors is designed for two cohorts of 75 students. These cohorts are divided by the ‘vertical piazza.’ The piazza provides opportunities for one or both cohorts to gather. From there, they are able to break into smaller group activities. These include presentation, construction, and cooking areas that facilitate a variety of age and stage-based learning opportunities.

Each floor is book ended by a classroom with sliding doors. These provide opportunities for direct instruction but not traditional homerooms. Unfortunately, parents in the community didn’t get the ‘75 students per cohort’ memo. The children in one year have expanded beyond their prescribed 75 student capacity. Fortunately, the staff and building have been able to adapt to this demographic bubble. The flexible nature of the space allows one cohort to exceed it size while not disrupting other year levels of the function of the school.

Inside there is a sameness to the learning neighbourhoods. Variety comes in how each one connects to the outside. Large balconies provide outdoor learning while adding visual interest to the northern façade. Climbing structures provide clever vertical connectivity between floors.  One of South Melbourne’s greatest achievements is that it provides external breakout opportunities for students at the higher floors.


At six stories high, South Melbourne Primary is not a particularly tall building. One day, it will be dwarfed by surrounding residential towers.

Its innovation comes not from its height but in a new model for education in Melbourne’s inner city. It seamlessly combines the requirements of a school for 450 students with community facilities on a small site.

Later this year, LEA Victoria will be visiting Prahran High School. It will be interesting to see how Prahran addresses the community and vertical issues in a Secondary College context. We hope to see you there.

Article: Wayne Hay
Photos: Dianna Snape; Diagram: Hayball