Connected Cities, density, Education, London, Melbourne, tall buildings

Do you remember the days of the old school yard? Wide open quadrangles, modest, single-storey buildings, tuckshops offering the sort of fare that wouldn’t pass the sensors of today’s nutritiously-conscious parents?

Times certainly have changed, not just in terms of what students are learning and eating, but the environments where they’re learning. Increasingly, the design of schools isn’t going out, but up, as the concept of multi-storey schools gains popularity.

This year’s Victorian State budget confirmed investment for the planning and site preparation of a new vertical primary school in South Melbourne, a first for Australia and likely to set a precedent for the design of both new and existing schools in our cities.

Vertical schools are already being successfully designed and delivered elsewhere in the world, including the Hampden Gurney primary school in London. Davis Langdon, an AECOM company, provided project and cost management services to enable this school to be constructed over 6 levels on a space-restricted site. Incorporating a playground on the roof with play decks on intermediate floors, schools like this are set to inform the design process for similar schools in Australia.

So what’s driving the growth of these schools as opposed to more conventionally designed ones? Space, or the lack of it, is the most obvious reason. Population growth is seeing young families settle in high-density areas, attracted by associated lifestyle benefits that also make the ‘traditional’ school design model harder to achieve. There’s simply not sufficient space to either build new schools or expand onto existing school buildings.

Schools are thus required to use their spaces more efficiently while maintaining a creative and accessible learning environment. Often, existing buildings in city locations where schools would not traditionally have been found can be adapted. This has happened in New York, where a former public library warehouse is being turned into an expanded Beacon High School. Where such conversions aren’t possible, however, alternative expansionist solutions are being sought.

The health benefits associated with vertical schools are also driving their popularity. Being more efficient with space in inner-city areas enables schools to retain their premium locations and be located in close proximity to students’ homes, encouraging more to walk to school and increase daily exercise while reducing congestion on surrounding roads.

For all the benefits, however, there are important factors to be considered when designing such vertical schools to ensure optimum learning experiences for students.

Impact on recreation

The benefits of vertical school cannot be at the expense of student learning and recreation. A lack of outdoor space on the upper levels of a vertical school may require teachers to adapt their style of learning, which may be restricted to indoor areas. A major consideration during design would be to review how outdoor areas are incorporated into upper levels to accommodate student recreation and sporting activities, or how open spaces on adjacent sites could be used. Careful planning would also be required to avoid overcrowding during student recreation times in these areas.

Movement of students

Swift movement and circulation of students throughout each of the floors is key to managing class timetables. A heavy reliance on lifts to upper floors requires maintenance to be minimised so as to avoid delays in getting to class. A solution, though, could be to zone different year groups into blocks connected by stairs, thus requiring lift/escalator access by these groups at the beginning and end of the day only. This would also promote activeness and wellbeing by encouraging walking up stairs. Staggering class start times could also be considered to avoid congestion in the lift foyers and stairwells.

Health and safety

Fire evacuation and safety is paramount to the design of any school, but in the case of vertical schools, it takes on additional importance. Basing students in lower storeys, for example, would result in less risk for younger age groups and ensure evacuation procedures are carried out with minimal delay. Road traffic and safety also need to be considered if fire assembly points are located outside of the school premises.

The UN Habitat predicts that by 2050 more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. This growing urban densification and the vertical cities it creates mean vertical schools will become more common.

Building ‘up’ as opposed to ‘out’ requires a shift in perception in how we should adapt the design of public facilities; we need to consider how we can better plan for public services such as education. The days of the ‘old school yard’ are changing, but we need to remember that, as learning environments evolve and rise, so too will expectations for quality learning outcomes.


nicholas ockleshaw@aecom comNick Ockleshaw ( is an associate in project management at Davis Langdon, an AECOM company.

Originally published Jul 29, 2014

Author: Nick Ockleshaw