How city densification is changing schools

by | Mar 17, 2023 | Building design trends

If we set aside whether towers are the best or only way to densify our cities, it is safe to say there is a growing body of evidence that many of our learning centres are heading in the same direction of travel. As building surveyors we have seen a proliferation of vertical schools that we have helped to deliver, so it is no surprise to us that this trend is continuing in response to pressure on both urban and suburban land use as well as ever increasing land costs. In this article we will examine the different aspects that we have experienced when considering building compliance for these developments. 

So what are the impacts of city densification on learning centres?

As cities densify, schools may be impacted in several ways depending on the specific context and Government policies in place. With more people than ever before living in cities, learning centres are seeing increased demand for spaces. This can lead to overcrowding and long waiting lists for enrollment, particularly in areas where there are limited schools. In response to this, pressure grows to build new schools. However, this can be challenging in densely populated areas where space is limited, and land values are high. To manage the demand for school places, city authorities often adjust school catchment areas. This can mean that students travel further to attend school or are forced to attend a different school to their siblings. 

In some cases, schools may need to share facilities with other community groups or organisations. For example, a school gymnasium may also be used as a community centre outside of school hours. Densification can lead to more diverse neighbourhoods, which may impact the demographics of schools. This can be positive in terms of exposing students to different cultures and perspectives but may also present challenges to ensure that all students feel included and valued. 

Overall, densification can have both positive and negative impacts on learning centres. To ensure that students continue to have access to high-quality education, it is important for city planners and policymakers to consider the specific needs of the local community and prioritise education as a key component of urban development.  

What are the advantages and disadvantages of going vertical?

Vertical schools have some advantages, such as using less land and potentially being more accessible to public transportation. They can also provide opportunities for innovative school designs that promote collaboration, creativity, and sustainability. However, there are some drawbacks to vertical schools. For example, students may not have access to outdoor spaces for physical activity and recreation, and vertical schools could be less flexible in accommodating changes in enrollment or program needs. 

With the population growth and densification of Sydney, several new schools have been built or planned as multi-storey buildings to maximize land use and accommodate more students, for example the 17-storey Arthur Phillip High School and Parramatta Public School redevelopment project, which was completed in 2020. This project involved the construction of two new multi-storey buildings accommodating over 4,000 students in total. The buildings were designed to be flexible and adaptable to changing educational needs, with features such as large open spaces and movable walls. At an interesting development in the site constrained Mosman High School, a new 3-storey construction is underway to accommodate more students and provide a recreation area on the roof of the building. A prime concern there is to ensure safety, but it shows what is possible. MBC Group worked on both these projects as well as others including Bellevue Hill High School (4-storeys), Santa Sophia College (6-storeys) and Meriden School (5-storeys). 

These projects demonstrate that vertical schools can be a viable solution and that they can provide high-quality learning environments that meet the needs of students and communities. Ultimately, whether or not schools become vertical will depend on a range of factors, including local zoning regulations, building codes, and community preferences. It is likely that a combination of vertical and horizontal school designs will be used in densely populated urban areas to meet the needs of the local community. 

How do we compare to other countries?

Vertical schools are becoming more prevalent in other countries as well. In Hong Kong, many schools are built as high-rise buildings, with some schools occupying more than 20 floors. In Tokyo, learning centres have been built as part of larger mixed-use developments that include residential, commercial, and educational facilities. Over in New York City, several vertical schools have been constructed in recent years, including the Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, which occupies eight floors in a residential building. Vertical schools are also gaining traction in countries with rapidly growing populations, such as China and India.  

Overall, vertical schools are an emerging trend in many densely populated cities around the world, as authorities look for ways to make the most of limited space and resources. It is worth noting that the concept of vertical schools is still relatively new, and many cities are still exploring this approach to accommodate growing student populations in urban areas. While it is difficult to compare the prevalence of vertical schools across different cities, many countries are adopting this solution. 

What do building surveyors assess in vertical schools?

Vertical schools present unique fire safety challenges, given their multi-storey nature. Building surveyors ensure that fire safety systems are designed and installed to comply with Australian Standards, including the NCC. This covers issues such as fire alarms, sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, and evacuation plans. 

Given the increased height of vertical schools, we ensure that the structure is designed to withstand wind loads and other environmental factors dependent upon location. Additionally, the foundations and other structural elements should be designed to support the weight of the building and its occupants. 

Building surveyors consider how students, staff, and visitors will enter and exit the building, particularly during emergency situations. This may involve designing multiple access and egress points, as well as ensuring that staircases, lifts, and other means of vertical transportation are appropriately sized and located. 

Multi-storey buildings often have unique acoustic challenges, particularly with regards to noise transfer between floors. We ensure that the building design includes appropriate soundproofing materials and methods to minimize noise transfer and ensure a conducive learning environment. With limited urban land available for vertical schools, the building design should maximise the use of natural light and ventilation. This may involve incorporating features like skylights, windows, and open-air spaces to increase light and ventilation. 

A vertical school shall be designed to be accessible to students, staff, and visitors with disabilities, in compliance with the NCC and Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA). This will often involve designing ramps, lifts, and other features to ensure accessibility to and within the building, which need to be checked for compliance with the NCC and DDA both during and post-construction. 

Finally, we must consider the energy efficiency of the building design, given the increased energy requirements of multi-storey structures, incorporating features like solar panels, energy-efficient lighting, and heating and cooling systems, to minimize energy consumption and reduce the school’s carbon footprint. 

In summary we will consider these and other factors when dealing with vertical schools, to ensure that the buildings are safe, functional, and conducive to learning. 

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