Future Proofing Schools

Using smart green integrated design approaches to prefabricated learning environments

An Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project funded for three years from 2010 to 2012 led by the University of Melbourne.


This ARC funded research project focussed on the design of relocatable buildings for Australian schools. Relocatable buildings are widely used by education departments across Australia. Future Proofing Schools worked with industry partners including six education departments around Australia to revitalise relocatable classrooms as 21st century learning environments. The research occurred at time of unprecedented tipping points in sustainable school design, 21st century pedagogies and emergent technologies in manufacturing.

An innovative approach to the research project was the inclusion of a Design Ideas Competition. With over one hundred entries received, professional architects, architecture students and others contributed significantly to the design thinking associated with the research program. The detailed competition brief introduced designers to best practice issues in the fields of 21st Century Learning; Sustainable Schools; Landscape Integrations and Connections; and Prefabrication.

The competition brief, developed during the first year of the project, was summarised within a Phase 1 Booklet. The information in the brief was informed by literature and site visits to best practice sites in Germany, The Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Japan. Local information was provided by our partners and through visits to manufacturers, schools and education departments in five Australian states and territories. City and rural schools were visited along with two remote schools in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.  The Phase 2 booklet contained indicative snapshots of the competition entries. The Phase 3 Booklet concluded the research with observations by the team on the competition entries. The project revealed some innovative thinking by designers around education design and prefabrication systems but also highlighted that some entrenched thinking was still apparent in the industry associated with both the design of spaces for contemporary learning and prefabrication.

Detailed project outline

  • Objectives

    This ARC funded research project focussed on the design of relocatable buildings for Australian schools. Relocatable buildings are widely used by education departments across Australia. In the Future Proofing Schools funding submission to the Australian Research Council (ARC) we were able to argue that a design competition would be an effective way to integrate complex criteria in order to visualise and critique the future of relocatable classrooms. This was the first time that a competition has been included as part of a successful ARC.

    Our objective was to shift long established cultures related to the design and procurement of relocatable classrooms to take advantage of new possibilities in design, pedagogy and manufacturing.

  • Outcomes

    Before the competition, the research team developed a brief to capture current knowledge and help inform the competition entrants. These were compiled into a competition brief that was conceived as an educative document for design practitioners. We collated knowledge from observation of prefabrication techniques and schools around the world as well as interviews with manufacturers, designers, leading academics, students and teachers. At the close of the competition period, we had received over one hundred entries, with winners from four countries announced in December 2011

    Intensive monitoring and evaluation of a range of existing prefabricated learning spaces in different climate zones around Australia was undertaken by PhD student, Philippa Soccio under the supervision of CI Dominique Hes.

    Design is an invaluable strategy for working through wicked problems that are so complex that they defy defi nition. Through design, complex ideas can be tested within scenario settings in order to explore different futures. In this ideas competition we developed an open-ended design brief with no specific site but with specific problems for resolution. In addition we provided detail on current knowledge in the four fields. The information in the brief was too detailed to be fully addressed in any one scheme particularly in an Ideas Competition but we chose to be comprehensive, as we saw potential in the brief as an educative document. The competition has been a way to ‘gear’ research in a tag team process with design professionals from industry.

    Our client group, six education departments across Australia wanted entrants to reconceptualise what relocatable learning spaces might look like in a decade rather than focus on designs ready for manufacture tomorrow.  The competition was a strategy to encourage culture change broadly within the Australian prefabrication industry and more specifically within the design of relocatable classrooms.

  • Impact

    The competition entries can continue to be used as a resource by our Industry Partners. In 2017 the Department of Education and Training (Victoria) developed a brief for 100 new permanent prefabricated school buildings and were able to draw on knowledge from the ARC research.

    The research directly led to the establishment of PrefabAUS with Research Fellow Sarah Backhouse becoming the initial CEO.

Publications and project outputs

Future Proofing Schools - Phase 1 Research Compilation Cover

Future Proofing Schools - Phase 2

Future Proofing Schools - Phase 3

  • Journal articles & conference papers

    Newton, C. & Backhouse, S. (2014). ‘Redesigning the relocatable: Multidisciplinary solutions for a wicked problem’,  in M. Di Marino & H. Teräväinen (eds) Architecture as human interface, Art + Design + Architecture 7/2014, Aalto University Publication series, Finland.

    Newton, C. & Backhouse, S. (2013). ‘Competing in Architecture: Crowdsourcing as a research tool’, Formakademisk. 6:1-­‐13.

    Newton,  C.,  Wilks,  S.,  Hes  D.,  Aibinu,  A.A,  et  al.  (2012).  ‘More than  a  survey:  an interdisciplinary post-­‐occupancy tracking of BER schools’, ArchitecturalScience Review, Taylor and Francis, London, Vol 55, Iss 3, 196-­‐205.

    Newton, C. (2009) ‘Disciplinary dilemmas: learning spaces as a discussion between designers and educators’ in C Collins, & S Knight (eds) Critical and Creative  Thinking: The Australian Journal of Philosophy in Education, UniSA, South Australia.Vol. 17. No. 2

    Newton, C., Wilks, S. & Hes, D . ( 2009). ‘Educational buildings as 3D text books: -­‐ linking ecological sustainability, pedagogy and space’ in Open House International Theme Issue: Shaping the Future of Learning Environments, The Urban International Press, Great Britain,  Vol. 34, No. 1, 17-­‐25.

    Newton,  C.  &  Cleveland, B.  (2015)  ‘The  other half  of  the picture: post-­‐occupancy  evaluation for alignment of  space and pedagogy’ for ASA2015 paper, in R.H. Crawford and A. Stephan (eds.), Living and Learning: Research for a Better Built Environment, 49th International Conference of the Architectural Science Association, Melbourne, 2-­‐ 4 December, 588-­‐597.

    Newton, C. & Cleveland, B. (2013). ‘Transforming Places of Learning: Aligning place, space, pedagogy and vision, ICERI 2013 Proceedings, 1790-­‐1799.

    Newton, C. & Backhouse, S. (2012). ‘Competing in Architecture: The Complexity Dilemma’ for The 4th International Conference on Architectural Competitions, 26-­‐27.10.2012 Espoo.

    Newton, C. & Backhouse, S. (2012). ‘Redefining the  Relocatable: Multidisciplinary design for a wicked problem’, for Architecture    as Human Interface, 26-­‐27.10.2012 Espoo.

    Newton, C., Wilks, S., Hes, D., Aibinu, A., Crawford, R., Goodwin, K., Jensen, C., Chambers, C., Chan, T.K. & Aye, L. (2011).  ‘Template schools:  A   unique  opportunity  for  holistic  post-­‐occupancy  evaluation’,  in  ANZAScA 2011 Conference: From Principles to Practice in Architectural Science, University of Sydney, Sydney.

    Newton, C. (2008). ‘Learning Through Prefabrication’ in C Rust (ed)  Undisciplined, Design Research Society Conference,Sheffield Hallam  University, July 16019, 2008, Sheffield, UK. (CDRom).


Acknowledgement: The Smart Green Schools team would like to thank the following industry partners for their involvement: Mary Featherston Design; Catholic Education Office Melbourne;  Department of Employment, Education and Training (Northern Territory); Department of Education and Training (WA); CEFPI (Victorian Chapter); Department of Education, Training and the Arts (Queensland); Office of the Victorian Government Architect, Department of Premier and Cabinet;  Rubida Research; NSW Department of Education and Training; TeeCH Project; Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (Victoria); and Hayball Architects.

Banner: Het 4e Gymnasium, HVDN architecten (now Studioninedots). Photo by John Lewis Marshall.