Why vertical schools are on the rise

Expanding urban populations and land scarcity are driving growth in vertical schools. As the schools go up, the opportunities to build stronger communities grow too, says Turner & Townsend’s Robin Sweasey.

According to the Grattan Institute, Victoria and New South Wales will both need to build around 200 schools each year for the next decade to meet surging demand. Queensland is not too far behind, either, needing 197 schools a year.

Around Australia, multi-storey schools are under construction. Melbourne’s first vertical school, Haileybury’s city campus, welcomed its first cohort of students last year.

In Sydney, the NSW Government plans to rebuild Parramatta's Arthur Phillip High School into a 10-storey tower, while another high-rise high school in Surry Hills will cater to 1,200 students.

And in Brisbane, Fortitude Valley is set to welcome Queensland’s first vertical high school by 2020.

According to Robin Sweasey, Turner & Townsend’s director of project management, the rise of vertical schools brings with it a unique opportunity to construct facilities that benefit the entire community.

Sweasey, Turner & Townsend’s national education lead in Australia, has spent the last two decades delivering education projects across the tertiary and schools sector.

He says vertical schools “are often sensitive undertakings within electorates” but can actually strengthen the fabric of local communities.

“In the past, schools were at the heart of the community, with road networks and facilities built around them to foster interaction and social engagement,” he says.

“Today’s vertical schools can facilitate important social links and cohesion within and between communities”.

A vertical school can become a “social hub” across age cohorts and demographics, and can integrate with the adjoining community, commercial, retail and cultural activities, Sweasey adds.

Take the South Melbourne Primary School, Victoria’s first public vertical school, which opened its doors earlier this year.

The five-storey school designed by Hayball and built by ADCO Construction, features a host of facilities that the community can enjoy.

Richard Leonard, a director at Hayball, says the design has “turned the horizontal school yard into a vertical play centre”. The internal staircase is a “vertical piazza” that acts as a meeting and teaching space, while the community has access to a maternal and child health centre, meeting rooms with kitchens, a 44-place early learning centre, and a gymnasium equipped for competition-grade indoor sports.

Vertical schools do, however, come at a cost. In Counting the cost of vertical schools, quantity surveying and cost estimating firm Slattery found that the cost premium could be in the order of 60 per cent.

Slattery has found that additional costs for vertical schools include building elements, such as additional ramps and staircases, structural requirements such as more complex foundational systems, as well as more sophisticated building services.

Other developmental costs include the likelihood of encountering contaminated sites in inner city areas, additional design complexities, and planning permissions.

"As schools go up, structure becomes more substantial and the façade more complex," says the report's author, Sarah Slattery.

Despite the challenges, Sweasey says vertical schools have the potential to “revolutionise learning in the 21st century” and to be “a catalyst for diverse cultures to cohabitate”.

“Australia has an extraordinary opportunity to be at the forefront of globally innovative education delivery through its willingness to embrace the vertical school concept.”