Review of The Talking Spaces 3: Future Proofing Schools Symposium

Published: Wednesday 26 October 2011

The Talking Spaces 3: Future Proofing Schools Symposium was held at University of Melbourne on the 24th August. This was third annual event and brought together educators and professionals of the built environment to explore and share ideas about the design of future learning spaces . 

This year the focus was on the design of relocatable or portable school infrastructure, and provided participants with an opportunity to imagine what these spaces could be like in the future. Day one was tightly planned and focussed.
The scene was set with representatives from Victoria, Western Australia, and Northern Territory listing the pressures that support the case for "instant school" space. The reasons are varied:

Arie van der Neut, Dutch Architect and director of HDVN (The Netherlands Architecture Practice of the Year 2011) shared fascinating experience of Schools he has designed in Amsterdam. In Holland, strict environmental laws control the construction of schools. This has demanded the evolution of constructing an interim temporary school which can be approved for use for a maximum of 5 years during which time the approvals for the permanent school can be achieved and construction is completed. The temporary School is then dis-assembled and can be moved to another temporary site and the process of a 5 year gestation of another new school can begin. The  intrigue of this experience is that HDVN have achieved such pleasant solutions that the students have developed strong connection with the place and a built environment that is only temporary. Many feel disrupted when their temporary school is dismantled. The Architectural solutions achieved seemed to belie the sense of unwelcome compromise so often associated with temporary built space.

Detailed knowledge of these school spaces would be needed to confirm the transferability of this strategy into the Australian scene however. The basic relocatable component seemed to be a framed box equivalent to a classroom size. In the Australian context, the basic classroom is increasingly dissolving and linking to adjacent classrooms to offer open plan spaces for Team teaching and engaging students in flexible dynamic options of group learning. 

But the speed of construction was compelling. HDVN have provided 3000m2 of school for up to 1000 students, with an elegant and comfortable low energy environment. It was a mere 8 months between commissioning to start design and students moving in. But there were sacrifices. There could be no community consultation for this school. That energy would be invested in the permanent building not due for 5 years. Five years is a substantial proportion of a student's school life, so background design knowledge needs to be strong (or hope for a lucky guess) regarding the pedagogical needs of the students and skills of the local teachers. 

Instant authentic knowledge is also needed of the local community's culture and expectations for the temporary school to be a legitimate supporter of the learner and his/her supporting community.  There was not much time to get this wrong or right because in the first week architect Arie van der Neut was already engrossed in deciding what height the school needed to be, to ensure the lift would be available in time. The lift was the item with the longest lead time of production. The Architect's next decisions were controlled by what prefabricated building modules were available "ex stock" in the time line and how to adapt as best as possible to function as a school. These modules needed to be thought about in a fresh way to establish a system that was as fluent to disassemble as it was quick to assemble. 

These challenges and thoughts moved on to a presentation by Prof Tom Kvan who challenged the thinking that the methodologies of personalization of mass produced, precision engineered products such as we see in the automobile industry, should soon translate into the construction industry. With schools being a function of place, climate, community and individuals, this idea is challenging. Prof Kvan was was supported from a different perspective by Dr Mark Burry who sees parametric design,made possible by powerful CADD/CAM computer systems, will soon be flexible enough to deliver customised kits parts to ship to sites for rapid flexible assembly.

The Design Ideas Competition for the Relocatable Classroom is focussed on these challenging subjects.

Demountable vs Relocatable/Transportable systems

The fully demountable "kit of parts" present a number of advantages over prefabricated "box on a truck" relocatable systems.

Advantages of Demountable systems are that they can be:

Disadvantages of demountable systems, however, is that they:

Advantages of current relocatable/transportable School Spaces can be:

The disadvantages of relocatable/transportable School Spaces can be:

The challenges of instant school space has been with us for decades. This competition reignites the challenge ti rethink possibilities for new approaches to education in the 21st Century. It will be fascinating to see the responses soon...entries close on 31st October 2011.

Links:
Design Ideas Competition - http://www.msdincubator.com/#competition

Talking Spaces 3 Symposium Brochure -
 http://www.cefpi.org.au/images/events/108/downloads/Talking%20Spaces%203%20Symposium%20Brochure%2024%20August1.pdf

HDVN 4th Gymnasium School, Amsterdam - http://www.imagineschooldesign.org/detail.html?&no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=189

The Candlebark School www.candlebark.info/

The penultimate School Tour organised by the Victorian Chapter this year was to the Candlebark School near Romsey/ Mt Macedon. Established by author John Marsden, who is the founding Principal, it is sited in a magnificent bushland setting. Mostly occupying buildings originally intended as a retreat and holiday experience for clients of the Institute for the Blind, the school is sited on the world's biggest campus: 1100 acres acres (445 Ha) of bushland. The scattered group of buildings have been adapted to a P-9 (5-14 years) school for 100 students paying approx $10,000 per student. Tightening interpretation of regulations on Fire Risk are frustrating the desire to expand to a P-12 school.

John Marsden reflected that his parent group were quite conservative, with little experience with alternative education, but the majority of his students were disaffected school users and their parents were often seeking a different approach to the conventional teaching methods that had not served their children well to date. Marsden's philosophy can be noted on the school web site, and evidenced as working well on the day of our September tour.

Teacher are required to have achieved outside of Teaching with other life experiences. An adventurous spirit is encouraged within Teachers and Students alike. Students are encouraged to be adventurous to try things on their own, that they can access Teacher's time anytime. There is no Staffroom. In practical, basic clothes, Students are encouraged to take risks: to climb trees, to roll down hills, to chase each other with sticks, to ride bikes and skate boards around the grounds, to bounce on trampolines.... but they also learn about consequences, negotiation and responsibility to others. Marsden is adamant about very high standards of courtesy towards others. Students are trusted to try things and discuss ideas... and there are spare clothes at school if something gets torn or muddy.

Architecturally, spaces were generally adapted, casual and robust: log cabin type pavilions set just below the old growth forest. The BER has funded a delightful new Library/ Resource/ Arts space that doubles as a semi-subterranean fire shelter for if the the school population was ever to be caught in a bushfire. It was designed by Architect Paul Haar. Daily, this multi-use space experiences the insulating comfort of three earth covered walls and roof. Light floods in the south facing windows and solar tubes deep at into the back of the cave-like space. 

The ease, smiles and self possessed politeness of the Students we met indicates that the philosophy is successful. Dis-engaged students have re-engaged and are flourishing in an environment where Students and Teachers are respected and opinions are valued. 

The final Tour for the year is this Friday to The Suzanne Corey select entry High School beside the Victoria University at Hoppers Crossing near Werribee. Join us for the AGM and Tour at 4pm Thursday 27th October.

Judith North

NOW architecture