Phillips Smith Conwell



Insights into education planning and design in a brave new world

There is no doubt we are in unprecedented times, and this couldn’t be truer for our schools, early learning centres and tertiary education providers. What we do know is that with uncertainty and change also comes the opportunity to look at how we do things. We can reassess how we evolve our design practices to become more agile with the changing needs of our education system, and more importantly, the changing needs for our teachers and their students.

We sat down with our Director, Sergio Sarri, who has been leading our education team for over 16 years. We share his insights as to how he and his team plan for change within the education environment to ensure they continue to evolve.


Sergio Sarri, Phillips Smith Conwell, Education design expert, education architecture, child care centres, schools, catholic schools, independent schools, tertiary education providers, university architecture

How many years have you been working in education and what has kept you engaged in the sector?

Sergio: 20 years in total – 16 of those with PSC. There are seven teachers in my family, from early learning educators through to writing university curriculum authors. I’ve always had an interest in the future of our generations of children, and if I weren’t an architect, I would have happily become a paediatrician. The current situation we’re in now looks like the biggest change I’ll ever see in education throughout my career.

During that time you would have seen many changes in how we teach our children. How has this influenced design over the years?

Sergio: Once learning was to happen in an industrial classroom with desks in a row facing the teacher. I recall it quite clearly from my early years. Now classrooms are more flexible and open. It’s no longer just about teaching, it’s about education. The focus has shifted from talking at students, to students being involved in the decision making as to how they’re taught. It has created an education that’s balanced; where the learning is not just happening within the classroom, but potentially within the overall experience of a space.

The challenge currently is how the physical classroom that we’re designing for now can be replicated across a digital platform, and how we can work with schools to share our design process to create a positive experience for teachers and students. It’s also going to be about utilising what we learn from this tumultuous period to evolve education spaces for the future.

Technology has had a big impact on society – but even more so now as we move into people working remotely. Schools may also consider this as a temporary option in the foreseeable future too. With that in mind, how do you see it impacting the future of technology within school design?

Sergio: Apart from the fact that students have their own equipment or are supplied laptops and tablets for contact and homework, the major shift is there is a lot of information accessed online as well as outside the classroom.

The major difference in this change is that classrooms have had to become more generalised learning areas. We now have rooms designed for moderately formal learning with semi-fixed furniture, and other areas as more flexible learning spaces. These are much larger and less defined environments and support group collaborative learning.

What will be interesting to see is how the current imperative for online learning will impact the next evolution in space design for education. After the world has settled down, it will be a valuable time to listen to teachers and students to see how we can best address challenges met, or implement any positive experiences back into the physical classroom through a collaborative design process.

Throughout your career, you’ve been dedicated to providing guidance for schools in how they evolve their schools for their future needs. Why do you see master planning as an important first step in that process?

Sergio: A lot of our initial contact with a client is at the master plan level, primarily because you have to have a master plan to scaffold government funding. But also because it’s what helps you elaborate on a project – whether it be development, expansion or reconfiguration – and relate it more to the wider school campus. It lets you see how that project will impact a school now and into the future.

A master plan is also a live document. Every time we do a project or there is significant change in technology that impacts a school, we update the master plan accordingly. So, as part of our service, we are constantly and consistently evolving that document. With technologies and pedagogies changing, so too does the need for the master plan to change and adapt as well.

With there being much discussion about schools closing for a period of time as a result of the pandemic, how do you see this time as an opportunity for education providers to evolve their facilities?

Sergio: This time allows us to almost push the re-set button, let’s consider our learning spaces in a completely new way.  Our vast education experience – from early childhood through to tertiary – can help educators reframe how they support learning and approach pedagogy beyond the physical space to include technological advances.

Many schools get overwhelmed with the process of designing new facilities. How do you suggest they get started?  

Sergio: For us, it’s about understanding what they want, but more importantly, how they want to teach. For each individual project we develop a different space depending on how they intend on teaching within it. We also encourage the school to do research into the wider community requirements and where the needs are likely to be in the future. With things changing quite quickly at the moment, there will be many lessons learned but also positive experiences that we will want to capture for design moving forward.

This feedback process gives us the opportunity to explore ideas through the master planning process and takes all of them into consideration. If the school can demonstrate their needs – appropriate spaces and facilities, enough classrooms, etc – they may be eligible to apply for funding. What’s good about this exploration process is that the needs then become the brief for us to develop the project.

Often, there are many stakeholders involved in the design process – from staff to students, parents and even the community. How do you involve them in the design process without it becoming overcomplicated?

Sergio: While it may seem like multiple stakeholders would complicate the process with too many opinions weighing-in, it actually assists us with forming the master plan. It makes it easier to know what people’s expectations are and manage them based on space or budgetary constraints. It also means we can make informed decisions – we don’t have to guess what they are anticipating or wanting.

Often we will form a master plan and then present this not only to school leaders but also sometimes to a representative of the parent body and even on occasion to local politicians so they can understand the project being undertaken. Occasionally we will have sessions where we present to the staff body and open up the opportunity for them to provide input. We usually ask them to workshop a series of questions and scenarios to help us solidify the planning to fulfill the school’s requirements.

Budgets and timelines on a project can be challenging, but it can be manageable. Do you have any insights into how schools can make this easier for themselves?

Sergio: It can be challenging but having been in the education sector for so long, our practice has gained a wealth of knowledge and experience to really guide schools through that process. We like to be involved as much as possible and keep the communication open so we don’t have to make assumptions to keep the process progressing. Doing this helps us to work with schools to endeavor to deliver their projects on time and under budget. The benefit is that we’re able to filter things for the school and we can quickly ascertain whether their cost and time allocations are reasonable and achievable.

We’ve had a long history working with schools going back to 1917 with schools such as St Joseph’s College at Nudgee. What do you think it is about our process that provides clients with the value and experience that they need for their school?

Sergio: Reliability and our respect for programming and budget. We’re very much in tune with trends in education technologies and philosophies. We are constantly learning and being educated ourselves on what is relevant to planning for the future. We feel that it’s very important to not stand still.

We are particularly focussed in applying our experience from early learning right through to tertiary education to blend the education across age groups. We use university technologies in high school settings to ease the students from one aspect of education through to the next stage. We utilise early learning models in earlier primary school projects to assist children with the transition into formal schooling. This breadth of experience means we understand education through all ages and stages of learning.

To date, what have been your top three education projects you have worked on at Phillips Smith Conwell?

Sergio: That’s a tough ask. We have touched so many buildings in our rich history and I still marvel when I drive past the All Hallows Chapel and convent, or the Lourdes Hill classrooms from early last century. If I’m pressed to make a shortlist, I would say the St Michael’s Early Learning at Caboolture, the Westside Christian College Creative Precinct in Goodna, and the Sports and Amenities facility at St Peter’s Lutheran College.

Each project had high client involvement – each with very challenging but clear briefs – and in all cases, we were awarded the opportunity to stretch some of our design thinking. All three projects had very different clients, all with their own expectations of what was to be delivered, however, our relationship with those clients involved a great deal of trust in allowing us some creative license. It was this trust that enabled us to use our knowledge, experience and creativity to help their schools adapt to the way they wanted their students to experience being educated.