‘Carving up’ how to approach school planning

The Learning Environments Applied Research Network at the University of Melbourne has undertaken an eighteen-month research project on the allocation of space for new schools benchmarking Australian strategies against strategies from Europe, America and Canada. In this article, we playfully use the metaphor of a meal design to demonstrate key issues in space planning.

Most people consider school planning to be about the permanent school facilities/buildings, ‘the meat’. However, if the school site is considered a plate which needs to contain the components for a balanced diet, you quickly realise that the steak alone does not make a good meal!

Let’s play with our food to investigate what a balanced meal or well-designed school should consider.

What makes a good meal?

The user groups of the school

Catering for people with different dietary requirements

The host(s) plays a crucial role in developing a vision for the format and style of the event to suit the guests within the constraints of available food and cooking skills. The menu and setting might be a finger food event for mingling or a formal seated meal.  Likewise for school design, a clear education vision and mission helps inform the allocation and design of facilities. Facilities should be planned to support the curricula on offer and the style of teaching

Just as we cater for people with different dietary requirements, it is important to design schools to suit the changing needs of school communities. Do the guests have specific needs that require separate catering or can the meal meet their needs without being distinguished as a ‘special dietary requirement’? In an ideal world we should design for inclusion by integrating special education students where possible rather than considering this separately with different facilities

The user groups of the school

The location and scale of the school

Determining serving sizes

Food quantities need to be sufficient for the number of guests. Plate size may vary depending on the local context and culture for serving sizes. Applying similar thinking to schools, location and size is based on demographic forecasts and accessibility but also land costs and density. Ideally the profile and culture of the local community should shape school location and size. Might the school grounds accommodate out-of-hours community usage?

The etiquette of share plates

Taking advantage of nearby resources

The etiquette of share plates

This leads us to the idea of sharing. Shared food is an opportunity for diverse conversations but requires negotiation and understanding. What will be shared and by whom? What will be received and what will be offered in return? What manners and actions are contextually appropriate for sharing food?

Ensuring there is clear communication and understanding between stakeholders when arranging joint use agreements for school facilities is critical for minimising potential conflicts. Stakeholders (such as child-care services, sporting associations, school board) should pre-determine their needs before school planning begins. Efficiencies from sharing can result in a win-win situation. For example students can benefit from professional gym and expertise and the community benefits from after-hours access. A commercial kitchen supports learning during school hours but might used commercially after-hours. Sharing has the potential to develop stronger neighbourhoods as long as the risks of conflicting needs are negotiated.

The etiquette of share plates

Planning relocatable facilities

Managing appetites

Planning ahead will help ensure there is sufficient food for changing appetites. Additional servings is preferable to a mountain of food on a plate. Catering for more than is needed works if there is a plan for leftovers. Who else could benefit from what is left on the plate rather than letting it go to waste?

Relocatable facilities are used to cater for fluctuations in student enrolments, however they often remain on the site for years to come. The outcome is that relocatables can consume valuable site (plate!) area resulting in the loss of outdoor learning space opportunities. A proactive approach to demographic forecasting minimises the risk of these fluctuations. Investing in a larger greenfield site if a large population is predicted future proofs the site selection. After peak enrolments have passed, the land and facilities of the school can be re-purposed and/or sold for other functions and user groups.

Planning relocatable facilities

Designing responsive learning spaces

Managing food group ratios

The needs of individuals vary when it comes to diet. Ideally food should match the health and lifestyle needs of individuals whether a triathlete before an event or a growing child.  Learning spaces should be designed in response to the activities expected. For example, a school specialising in science would plan for an increased provision of wet areas, and labs whereas a focus on sporting achievement would require more indoor and outdoor recreation facilities such as a competition grade oval, hardcourts etc. Therefore, it’s important in the initial design stage for a clear understanding of what the school wants to achieve as its output – is it aiming to produce Olympians or Nobel Prize winners?

Designing responsive learning spaces

Selecting purposeful and agile furniture

Breaking down specific nutrients

In addition to providing the right ratio of nutrients, such as the proportion of carbohydrates to protein on your plate, there are a number of options of what they may be. Let’s take complex carbohydrates (also known as starches) for example. Refined starches such as white bread and rice can be popular due to their taste, however they do not contain the same vitamins, minerals or fibre present in unrefined grains. While both have the same number of calories, they fuel our bodies in different ways.

  1. Are the specific types of nutrients suited to your body’s needs?
  2. Have they been chosen to provide a fast or a slower but steadier rate of energy?

Furniture plays a key role in learning environment design and while providing chairs and tables is one thing, the design and ergonomics of these affordances is very important. You may choose to use high level hard stools where students are encouraged to be actively moving and participating in group activities for short periods of time, whereas a comfortable low level padded seat can encourage a student to stay seated and focused for a longer period of time when required to concentrate independently. Furniture should match the intended outcome for the teaching style. It is situational whether one setting is better than the other.

Selecting purposeful and agile furniture

Leading good educational practice in contemporary learning environments

Appointing a good head chef

Last but not least we come to the chef! One can provide an excellent kitchen and the highest quality of produce, but the success on the meal still depends on the chef preparing it. Here it is without question that:

  1. The chef must have a clear vision and clearly communicate this with other staff members to ensure consistency in outputs.
  2. A good chef makes takes advantage of opportunities such as what is locally available and in season.

Appointing a principal prior to planning a new school is important. The principal of the school must have a clear vision to enable the school facility design to align and support it. While it is recognised that not all schools are new developments that can be built to meet a new principals vision, a good principal will take advantage of the facilities provided and look for new opportunities to get the best outcomes.

Leading good educational practice


Bella Bower

Bella has completed a Masters of Architecture and is the Research Coordination and Communications Officer for the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN), The University of Melbourne

Ben Cleveland

Ben was a teacher prior to undertaking his PhD as part of the Smart Green Schools research project. He is now a Senior Lecturer, Melbourne School of Design, The University of Melbourne

Clare Newton

Clare is an architect and Associate Professor in Learning Environments, Melbourne School of Design, The University of Melbourne. She has led two ARC projects on learning space design.