Designing better learning environments


3 Minute read

The contemporary classroom is changing, due to a collaboration between architecture, design and education researchers, as well as government, schools and the building industry. The project also led to the establishment of Australia’s first peak body for prefabricated building, prefabAUS.

The outcome

Several award-winning school buildings have been designed using research from the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN). LEaRN is a collaboration between architecture, design and education researchers at the University of Melbourne, as well as government, schools and the building industry.

When designing Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia, architectural practice Hayball, a LEaRN research partner, balanced the relative benefits of purpose-built spaces with those of flexible spaces. They designed a prefabricated modular building with 10 spaces dedicated to different learning activities, with the capacity to connect the spaces when needed. Individual spaces can be used for quiet reflection and individual study, or opened for group work and performances – all of which are necessary for optimal teaching and learning.

In their design of Dallas Brooks Primary School, north-east of Melbourne, McBride Charles Ryan, also a LEaRN industry research partner, incorporated sustainability measures. Their building design includes natural ventilation, energy-efficient lighting and rainwater harvesting.

LEaRN’s work informed the Office of the Victorian Government Architect’s Good Design Initiative as a resource for educational building design.

Their research also led to the establishment of Australia’s first peak body in prefabrication, prefabAUS.

Watch: Rearranging the way we learn

Moveable walls, beanbag drop zones and free-range layouts.

Today’s classrooms would be barely recognisable to teachers from yesteryear, more used to rows of desks facing the front and ‘chalking and talking’.

Part of Made Possible by Melbourne.

Read more at Pursuit

Rearranging the way we learn – Made Possible by Melbourne

The need

In 2010, as part of a fiscal stimulation package, the Australian Government injected $A16.2 billion into improving school facilities across Australia. This created both an opportunity and a need to understand how learning spaces can improve or inhibit best-practice teaching and learning.

The need for evidence to build effective learning spaces was reinforced in 2018 when the government of the state of Victoria committed to building 100 new schools by 2026. In the decade to 2026, an estimated 400 to 750 new schools will be needed to accommodate 650 000 more students across Australia.

Contemporary classrooms that optimise learning and teaching present a challenge to designers and builders because they need to encourage or allow many types of activity. These include reflection, collaboration, group learning, individual learning, presentations, and computer use. Learning environments also need to accommodate activities involving water, display areas, and spaces for teacher meetings.

While schools need to balance considerations such as construction time, sustainability, flexibility of space, cost and design, there was little evidence to help prioritise them.

Developing the solution

The Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN) is an international collaboration between government and industry, and researchers from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and the Melbourne School of Design. They work to identify links between teaching, the built environment, and learning environments in schools and other educational settings, such as universities and hospitals.  

One way to increase school capacity and test new building designs is to use prefabricated buildings (also called prefabs, temporary buildings or relocatables).

Between 2010 and 2014, a research team led by Associate Professor Clare Newton worked on Future Proofing Schools. The research team included architects, educators, landscape architects and sustainability specialists working in collaboration with Australian state education departments.

The team created a design competition in which entrants were asked to use prefab systems to develop contemporary learning spaces. This idea was informed by site visits to Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Japan. The team also visited manufacturers, education departments, and urban, rural and remote schools across Australia.

The competition, which was held in 2011, attracted 116 submissions from designers and architects around the world.

Based on the submitted designs, the researchers made 10 recommendations for the future use of prefabrication in Australian schools.

For example, the team recommended that designers and builders involve schools in the design, development and selection of prefab buildings. This would ensure buildings meet the cultural and learning needs of each school.

These recommendations have been adopted by builders and designers on several prefab school buildings in Australia.

The team also found that Australia lacked the level of prefab development of countries such as Japan, Germany and the Netherlands. They recommended that Australia form a dedicated industry peak body for prefabrication. PrefabAUS was established in 2013 and works with manufacturers, architects, designers, engineers, researchers, government and regulatory bodies to advance Australian building prefabrication.


ARC Linkage Project

Future Proofing Schools: Using Smart Green Integrated Design Approaches To Prefabricated Learning Environments (LP0991146)

Smart Green Schools: Educational And Environmental Outcomes Of Innovation In School Building Design (LP0776850)


Future Proofing Schools - Reports

Newton C et al (2018) Plug n play: Future prefab for smart green schools. Buildings 8(7): 88. doi: 10.3390/buildings8070088

Newton C, Backhouse S (2014) Redesigning the relocatable: Multidisciplinary solutions for a wicked problem. In: Di Marino M, Teräväinen H (eds) Architecture as Human Interface 2012, pp 159–178. Espoo, Finland: Aalto University

Newton C, Fisher K (eds) (2009) TAKE 8 Learning Spaces: The transformation of educational spaces for the 21st century. Barton, Australia: Australian Institute of Architects

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Banner image: Beehives can be used for maths and writing (with bonus storage). Inside is quiet space for kids to talk, play games, or work on projects.

First published on 1 March 2022.

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