Phillips Smith Conwell



Designing the vertical school

Vertical schools are becoming more and more popular, particularly in high-density areas throughout metropolitan and regional cities. We spoke with our education team to understand how their design approach differs for this type of school so learning and campus environments can remain supported.

How does the design of a vertical school differ from any other school?

We’ve found the arrangement of a vertical schools is heavily influenced by relationships between the disciplines being taught to the students, as well as the hierarchies between the year levels.

Placing year levels on different floors of the building – with students reaching the top level once they arrive at the pinnacle of the of their primary and secondary education – reinforces this. We find it forms a goal driven environment where students and education are not only supported, but also motivated by the design.

Grouping various specialist learning areas next to each other creates great interactive precincts within a school. It promotes collaboration between like-minded students across any year level, while still giving them the option to move back to their year level space when they want to.

Just like any other school, it is the relationships between people and disciplines that strongly inform the design of a vertical school  – only with the challenges of access and egress from a multi storey building.


How do you create easy access and interaction between floors, so students aren’t going from the top to the bottom of the building constantly?

A significant part of designing a successful learning experience is about providing opportunities for students to experience other disciplines while maintaining a degree of separation between them.

We’ve been exploring the idea of half levels to balance these two elements within the vertical school environment. We looked at positioning the General Learning Areas of a building half a level higher than the Specialist Learning Areas, allowing supervision between the various learning areas. One level then has visibility across two levels on the opposite side – without a direct line of sight which could create a learning disruption for students.

Another benefit to this layout is staff members and students are often only half a level from where they need to be. By locating the General Learning Areas – which remain static to the students – opposite the constantly changing classes in the Specialist Learning Areas, the student’s likelihood of being only a half flight of stairs away from their next class is very high.

Aura senior Vertical School

Outdoor learning must be a challenge in the vertical environment. Is there a way to facilitate this in the design without going to the ground level?

Generally, we introvert spaces from the street and campus to greater utilise the travel spaces within the building as outdoor learning areas. These travel spaces become greenspaces that can present themselves to the street as well as the learning spaces behind. It gives students connection to nature while reinforcing the benefit of education via the osmosis of nature – which is particularly important for outdoor learning areas in disciplines such as Science.

Aura senior Vertical School

It is often thought that a multi storey building can feel closed in. What measures can be implemented in the design to ensure there is openness and access to natural light and breezes?

Our first principals of design are influenced by passive design – letting hot air out of the building and capturing breezes to eliminate the need for air conditioning. This can be achieved successfully by raising the roof on a building to create a covered space protected from weather while also allowing for ventilation and daylight.

We like to focus on arranging a building in a way that allows natural light to pass through spaces, giving warmth in winter and protection in summer. Using sun tracking technology, we can see how the natural light spills through various spaces – including classrooms, lunch and break areas – so they are suitable and accessible at different times during the year.

Another benefit of raising the roof is the ability to capture rainwater through a gutter like channel. This channel not only stores water but directs it into rainwater tanks situated in the greenspaces, allowing the students to examine an ecologic system in a holistic way.