VIC Road trip explores Ballarat's leading learning spaces

Published: Thursday 22 August 2019

Every year, the Victorian Chapter of Learning Environments Australasia hosts a country tour of recently completed education facilities. This year, a group of over thirty participants visited Ballarat on a cold and windy August day and viewed some of the area's most significant educational and higher learning facilities.

The tour included visits to the Ballarat Tech School; Catherine of Siena Centre and St Brigid Health Sciences Building at Australian Catholic University; and Charles E Richardson Physical Education Centre and Rowena E Coutts Science Centre at Ballarat Clarendon College. A sit down lunch at Mitchell Harris Wines gave everyone on the tour a chance to meet some new people.

The event was generously supported by sponsors Woods Furniture and Norva Nivel.

Ballarat Tech School – Patrick Architects

At Ballarat Tech School, we heard from John Patrick from Patrick Architects and Sofia Fuisco from Ballarat Tech School. Ballarat Tech School opened in February 2018 as a centre of excellence for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). All the Government’s Tech Schools are hosted by universities or TAFE colleges, giving students a taste of higher education and potential career pathways.


John explained that the Ballarat Tech School build was delivered for under $10M by repurposing an existing building on the Federation University campus. Patrick Architects added a light-filled atrium and gathering space under a floor-cut at the next level. Architectural features draw on the Federation star and the university’s gold, black and white colour theme, and include a ‘learning tree’ feature in the atrium.

Sofia explained that students from 17 State, Catholic and independent partner schools in the Ballarat area are able to access the Tech School and use top-end equipment that individual schools would be unable to afford. The students remain at their regular schools and come to the Tech School throughout the year for free programs designed to inspire their interest in STEM.

The students participate in innovative learning programs developed collaboratively by industry and education partners, and are challenged to solve real-world problems in a high-tech environment. The facility is also used for industry events and by a volunteer group that runs a regular ‘Repair Café’ for community members.

After hearing from John and Sofia, we were able to walk around the facility, watch some visiting students in action, and use some of the high tech equipment ourselves.

Ballarat Tech School won the Victorian Chapter 2018 Award for an Education Initiative or a Design Solution for an Innovative Program.

Catherine of Siena Centre, Australian Catholic University – Morton Dunn Architects

The Catherine of Siena Centre at Australian Catholic University is the Ripon Street presentation of the Australia Catholic University, a university campus in a significant heritage precinct. The Centre is an administration building and acts as an interface for students, staff and community, as well as an interface between the old and the new.

Alan Morton from Morton Dunn Architects explained how a Heritage Overlay and Conservation Management Plan helped shape the Centre, with two heritage cottages from the site subsequently used for the new St Brigid Health Sciences Building, moved to fill a gap and transform what was a depleted and incomplete heritage streetscape. These cottages, and a further two existing cottages, form the backbone of the Catherine of Siena Centre.

The Centre has been designed to showcase the heritage buildings. From the outside, the four buildings are still distinct. Inside,  Alan said that the change in floor levels had provided a challenge, but when walking around the Centre, we moved through the cottages and new interconnected elements without it being obvious where one finished and another began.

The overall result is a building that links the four existing heritage cottages into a seamless, integrated facility sitting within landscaped courtyard spaces. The eastern entry is highlighted by contemporary architectural elements that complement the traditional forms, further reflecting the vibrancy of the new centre and providing an effective, dynamic interconnection with the main university campus.

The Catherine of Siena Centre was winner of the 2017 Ballarat Heritage Award for Adaptive Reuse of a Heritage Place.

St Brigid Health Sciences Building, Australian Catholic University – Woods Bagot

St Brigid Health Sciences Building officially opened in April 2017 at the Australian Catholic University. It is a ‘gateway’ building and the first teaching a learning building that students experience as they approach the campus from the west.

Albert Fravel and William Thiessen from Woods Bagot told us how the design for this new building drew on the course content for the architectural narrative. The three streams of teaching physiotherapy – neurology, cardiovascular-respiratory and musculoskeletal – are each interpreted as an architectural expression.

The building’s circulation is conceived as a neural network, connecting teaching spaces throughout the building. The cardiovascular-respiratory system or ‘heart’ of the building is found in the social and informal gathering spaces that support the formal learning spaces. The musculoskeletal system provides form, support and stability.

‘Privacy’ was a key feature of the design. Some of the teaching spaces needed to be private (dissection, treatment rooms) and in these instances, solid walls were used inside the building and external windows kept a high level to maximise the amount of natural light whilst ensuring privacy was maintained. Careful consideration also had to be given to avoid overlooking of neighbouring residential properties. For other teaching spaces, glass walls and windows enable students to see in and out.

The new building combines the existing campus pallet of brick, glass and steel. Instead of signage being imposed on the building, bricks have been used to integrate the university’s crest into the façade, with individually hand cut bricks protruding from the face brickwork and casting a shadow that shifts throughout the day.

We enjoyed hearing the stories of the fastidious local bricklayer Ray McCormack From Newmac Bricklaying who, by insisting that every single brick be laid to a numbered chart. was able to execute the designs to perfection.

Rowena E Coutts Science Centre and Charles E Richardson Physical Education Centre, Ballarat Clarendon College – Williams Boag Architects

At Ballarat Clarendon College Peter Williams from Williams Boag Architects spoke to us about the school’s vision and approach, and took us on a tour, including showing us the particular buildings that we had come to see – the Rowena E Coutts Science Centre and Charles E Richardson Physical Education Centre.

The Rowena E Coutts Science Centre is a state of the art science facility that complements the teaching facilities assembled by the College over the past 15 years. The centre is comprised of science studios, laboratories, preparation lab and chemical store, physics runway, vertical laboratory teaching courtyards, staff offices and amenities, and associated plant room and equipment.

We particularly liked seeing the various approaches to teaching spaces within the building, including a large tiered theatre space, a smaller theatre space with adjoining lab, and a number of classrooms ‘pairs’ on either side of a shared lab space.

The Charles E Richardson Physical Education Centre supports the College’s aspiration to conduct a comprehensive, general all-of-school fitness program for students, staff and parents.


The Centre is on the Sturt Street / Wanliss Road corner of the campus - a critical location in terms of how the school presents to the community at large. This constrained but prominent corner site had been occupied by aging, unfit for purpose facilities, including a domestic scale 1960s pool and adjoining lofty 1970s gymnasium.

A decision was made to retain and upgrade the gymnasium building and to replace the leaking pool, and to add additional facilities if feasible. The Centre now includes a spin room, exercise and dance studios ‘stacked’ over two levels, and has a large variable water speed rowing tank for 16 users at a time, the first in Australia.

Our visit to Ballarat Clarendon College let us see the result of an enduring relationship between client and architect. Peter Williams has been working with the school for nearly 20 years and as a result, a coherent design is evident throughout the College.

Article: Lisel Thomas, Victorian Chair Elect
Photos: Minx Architecture and Lisel Thomas