As population growth in inner city suburbs increases, pressure is being placed on education systems. Are multi-level schools the solution?

Parramatta will see the construction of New South Wales’ first public high-rise high school to replace an ageing and overcrowded school that it is said will be swamped with enrolments over the next 20 years.

It is part of a wider strategy to meet the needs for more space for high schools to cope with an anticipated 2,500 additional secondary students living in inner Sydney by 2026.

Architecture firm dwp|suters has partnered with the NSW Department of Education and Communities to deliver Concept Design Guidelines for the Multi-Level Schools in the State.

Concept for NSW Vertical Schools

Concept for NSW Vertical Schools

The guidelines, which aim to ensure future education demands and community needs are met, provide a design framework for the procurement of future multi-level school designs in the state, and outlines comprehensive education concepts, principles and spatial implications.

“The move to student-centred learning has created a need for more flexible spaces and less fixed learning spaces. The design principles set out in the multi-level school concept focuses on a student and project centred environment that allows for physical change and the integration of media and IT,” said Shane Wood, education leader at dwp|suters.

To include a mix of refurbished and new multi-storey buildings that accommodate up to 1,500 secondary students, the first inner city campus will be completed by 2020.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), Lynne Goodwin, the principal of Arthur Phillip – the school to be rebuilt – said they desperately needed more space and was confident that students would enjoy learning in a high-rise school.

St Andrew’s Cathedral School, a private school in Sydney’s CBD, is the only high-rise school in NSW.

Roof-top cricket at St Andrew's Cathedral School]

Roof-top cricket at St Andrew’s Cathedral School

Two students of that school, Lachlan Renwick and Jordan Barnes, also spoke to SMH and said that students “face a variety of challenges while being afforded many unique opportunities that you wouldn’t find at a flat school in the suburbs.”

These include having a wealth of food establishments to pick from at lunchtime and being able to use the city’s resources as learning tools in excursions.

“Being in the centre of Sydney’s transport network, we can easily travel from nearly anywhere and be sure we’ll arrive on time,” the boys added. “Furthermore, students in the younger years can use our unique rooftop playground to enjoy the city views while they eat and play at lunch-time.”

Roughly 70 per cent of the world’s population is projected to be living in cities by 2050 and in the United States, there has been a steady increase in the number of skyscraper schools.

Chris Hale, senior associate at architects Perkins+Will, said there was “no alternative [to going vertical]” for the seven-storey William Jones College Preparatory High School in downtown Chicago, which features a café, auditorium and library on the lower floors, classrooms on levels four and five and a swimming pool and gym on the top levels.

“The design team wanted to ensure that the typical school-as-community centre, common to schools laid out horizontally, was maintained even if the school was built vertically,” Hale said, adding that he suspected that high-rise schools will become increasingly common.

Beacon High School in Manhattan is another seven-storey facility due to open this year, but rather than a new build, this school was once a New York Public Library warehouse. It was purchased for $45 million and a massive renovation has seen the incorporation of wireless Internet access, technology labs, a dark room, music rooms, a full-size gymnasium and an auditorium.

Beacon’s old campus was designed for 837 students but ended up serving almost 1,300 students. The new school will be able to accommodate about 1,500 students.

Ruth Lacey, the founding principal of Beacon, did, however, express one concern with the new facilities.

“The old building is horizontal,” she said, which made it easier for her to monitor students and supervise staff. The new school will be a vertical community. “How am I supposed to keep track of anything here?”

While high rise schools are attempting to future-proof education, it is this physical solution that poses new problems for Australia, said Shannon Walker, Student Wellbeing Officer at Hume Valley School in Melbourne.

“The logistics of managing a school space becomes complex,” said Walker. “The people management for both staff and students requires a higher level of finesse, and unlike American charter schools who have scope to employ directors or managers with that skill set, Australian schools require teachers to become high level managers, risk assessment experts, crisis response professionals.”

“A teacher, no matter how experienced they may be in a classroom, is not necessarily a skilled people manager. Planned evacuations in response to unsafe students could have life and death outcomes if managed poorly. The students who need time and space will struggle to find it. The domino effect of one unsettled student going through classes like a wave could have catastrophic outcomes. The added layer of safety is one that needs attention and thought from beyond the education sphere.”

Elsewhere in the US, The Beekman Hill International School in New York has risen to the challenge of adapting a school program to a building designed as a nurses’ residence. Architects Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn have converted diminutive dormitory rooms into flexible classrooms with areas for small group learning, and narrow, fixed corridors have been transformed into lively circulation zones with nooks for storage and informal breakout spaces. The school also includes a rooftop playground shielded by a decorative screen, which provides a protective enclosure for the children at play.

Rooftop Playground at Beekman Hill International School

Rooftop playground at Beekman Hill International School

Another conversion is North Atlanta High School. Sitting in IBM’s old office building, it is Georgia’s most expensive public high school. Costing around $147 million, the school is 11 storeys tall and includes a 900-car parking deck and views fit for a corporate executive.

The main criticism here seems to be something that vexes most people who live or work in high-rise buildings.

“My only advice is to invest in better elevators,” said Mariana Ryes, a sophomore. “There is no way I am going to get to my classes on time in these.”

The mass migration to cities is even larger and more rapid in China.

Sky City One is completely reimagining the concept of the vertical city to rise to the challenge of increasing urbanization.

Sky City One

Sky City One

The building, which will be located in an empty field near the city of Changsha, intends to address population growth by offering a city-in-a-skyscraper that will eventually house 30,000 people. It has been designed to accommodate five schools, a hospital, apartments and offices in sustainable surroundings reducing the per capita use of land.

While it may not be the most spacious or luxurious abode, builder BSB believes it signals the way forward for Chinese cities, saying “urbanisation cannot be materialised at the cost of land and environmental pollution.”

But what does this mean socially?

What will be the outcome of a fundamentally different relation to space where commuting is done vertically instead of horizontally? How will public space be defined and used and how much and when will people venture outside of the vertical city? What will this mean for future demographics and future human behaviour. And, of course, for future learning and development?

The answers to these and many other questions will only be known in time.