It’s hard to imagine a more complex, challenging brief: in just six months, transform a compact, rundown, vacant school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs into a nurturing, adaptable, state-of-the-art facility with strong indoor-outdoor connection, purpose-built for students with complex disabilities and high needs. In the process, inspire and engage staff and parents, many of whom are reluctant to relocate out of concern about the impact of upheaval on students.
St Paul’s College is a Catholic specialist school for children with intellectual, physical, profound multiple and sensory disabilities. A new principal, Tim Hemphill, was appointed to relocate the school from an extremely rundown campus in Kew (larger than the Balwyn site but never built-for-purpose). Discussions began with ClarkeHopkinsClarke in May 2018 and the modernised Balwyn campus needed to be fully functional for day one of term one, 2019. Failure was not an option.
This week this remarkable project was commended in the 2020 Learning Environments Australasia Learning Environments Australasia Educational and Facilities Regional Award for Renovation/Modernisation over $5m. Simon Le Nepveu, ClarkeHopkinsClarke Education Partner, says the key to success was getting everyone on board at the outset. “Our planning process was very consultative and allowed us to condense six months of stakeholder engagement into one,” he says. “We earned the support of key stakeholders by showing what’s possible in a purpose-built environment, and by developing a very detailed program of requirements. Once parents and teachers understood the design process and its potential, their excitement and input grew.”
Inevitably, design continued after construction began, which required unusually close collaboration across the project team: St Pauls and VMCH, ClarkeHopkinsClarke, BowdenCorp, Jeavons Landscape Architects, Cortese Consulting, Clements Consulting, Spencer Group Engineering and Steve Watson & Partners. ”We all signed up knowing the ‘Mission Impossible’ deadline would bring challenges and pressures,” Simon says. “Everyone worked exceptionally hard and creatively, solving problems as they arose and focusing on critical design objectives. We were all determined to deliver an outstanding facility.”
The Balwyn site comprised three ageing forms – a brick learning building flanked by a 100-year-old hall and relocatables. All were disconnected from each other and from undertilised grounds. The brief called for a contemporary, safe, nurturing environment with fully integrated ramps and equipment like hoists and anchor points, easy access to bathrooms and outdoor play (used extensively for wellbeing and learning), and endlessly adaptable learning spaces. Moving students takes time so each learning environment needed to accommodate diverse activities from meals to art plus equipment storage and calming spaces for retreat. Multi-functional spaces needed to promote collaborative planning and skills-sharing among staff and adapt to current and future students’ changing needs.
ClarkeHopkinsClarke’s design response transformed learning at St Paul’s using a site smaller than its Kew campus by maximising every inch, inside and out. It integrates indoor and outdoor space via glazing, curved internal joinery with playful cut-outs, and curvy external ramps, paths, playgrounds and landscaping. It transforms the hall into a zone for senior students and opens up the internalised main building, reconfiguring it for junior and middle students and introducing shared spaces including staff retreats, an atmospheric Sensory Room, and a central Discovery Centre with multi-purpose space for gatherings as diverse as planning meetings, assemblies and yoga classes. A split-level design maximises space and functionality. “That posed some accessibility challenges,” concedes Project Archtiect Cathy Chapman. “We overcame them by integrating ramps as a design feature. Relocatables were repurposed for services like bathrooms, an art/hospitality space that enabled introduction of VCAL, and an adjacent café that opens to the community as required.”
Tactile, moveable furnishings and acoustic paneling allow space to be activated in imaginative ways. Flexibility is especially important with a high-needs cohort, where students’ wellbeing and behavior changes regularly. Staff need multiple options for helping them regulate their moods and emotions, take breaks as required, and create an optimum environment for learning. The mesmerising Sensory Room uses innovative LUMES technology developed by local new media design studio ENESS. Akin to interactive digital wallpaper, this LED light-emitting canvas can react to movement, time, weather, vibration, audio and skeletal and facial recognition. “The floor features an illuminating ‘magic carpet’ for lying or playing games on,” says Cathy. “For students and staff who love this stimulation the space has become a favourite retreat. Students can learn to program the wall.”
Tim says these “beautiful new work and play areas have completely transformed the lives of students in our care.” “The design has provided an amazing learning environment for our students and teachers. It facilitates collaborative planning and sharing of skills, knowledge and experience. It also helps our partnerships with mainstream schools for dual enrolment students by creating a warm, inviting environment for meetings and professional learning.”
“Vocational facilities for Hospitality, Horticulture and Social Enterprise include the Black Cat Café and a fully-accessible kitchen that allows for Certificate based VCAL program for senior school students in 2020. Purposeful organic textures, colours and forms create warm, soft, acoustically sensitive environments in indoor and outdoor spaces. Balancing specialist and mainstream elements, the designers placed challenging and cocooning features alongside state-of-the art sensory and disability-specific assistive technologies, delivering a unique, engaging, playful, living school environment. The school delivers a full sensory and disability-specific physical environment full of shared and small group learning spaces tailored to our students’ needs.”
The impact has been profound across the entire school community. “Students, families, staff and visitors are welcomed into a school environment that’s ... a model for educational provision for children and young people facing the adversity of complex disabilities that impact every aspect of their lives,” Tim says. ”The overwhelmingly positive response ... has surpassed all expectations.”
Photography by Rhiannon Slatter