Vertical Schools

Last decade marked a watershed in human history as, for the first time ever, more people lived in urban than in rural areas. That one per cent that tipped the scales is also indicative of rapid urbanisation in underdeveloped countries, as well as the urban conglomerates of the West becoming more crowded. Infrastructural problems faced by overcrowded cities affect the everyday lives of citizens, and recently, have started to complicate the already complex situation in educational infrastructure. There is simply no more room in most cities to expand existing schools, let alone build new ones. Or rather, there is no more room for the traditional, horizontal school model that we are so used to. The solution is going vertical, but vertical schools are not just about stacking classrooms on top of each other. Far from being just a physical, architectural reimagining, vertical schools aim to modify the way we do education in cities overall.

Although the rise in the number of vertical schools is more of a recent phenomenon, the history of vertical schools goes all the way back to the Victorian era. Some of the oldest, still-standing, multi-storey vertical schools from the 19th century can be found in England and Scandinavia. The main characteristics of these school buildings is that they are multi-storey, and are located in urban areas. Modern vertical schools share those features, but in addition they are characterised by design that supports active learning, and usually being closely tied to the neighborhood, serve as a community centre. School buildings can generally be low-rise, mid-rise, or high-rise. Mid-rise schools are between four and seven storeys high, while high-rise buildings can go up to 17 storeys or more.

Since vertical schools are built to address the issue of overcrowding by optimising the use of what little space public buildings have in densely populated areas, they are made with a view that the urban environment is an extension of their classrooms. Vertical schools, therefore, are not placed in strategic locations close to public libraries, parks, and recreation centres, but their own facilities are more often than not open to the public (after classes are over). This symbiotic relationship between vertical schools and their immediate neighborhood helps schools remain cost-effective, but also allows them to use resources they normally would not be able to.

Most vertical schools are mid-rise, and mid-rise schools often come with a central atrium. The atrium serves as the focal point of the building and enhances social interaction between students. Its wide, open space allows for plenty of natural light to come through and it also increases airflow. The atrium can be seen as an alternative community space (in the absence of outdoor spaces) where students can interact with each other and have complete vertical visibility of all classrooms, which helps with orientation.

Atriums in vertical schools often come with a feature known as the ‘Hellerup stair’, named so after the Hellerup School in Copenhagen, where it was used early on. The Hellerup stair is an extended, wide stair that can be used for sitting, socialising, and even teaching. Its width encourages a more relaxed approach to moving through school, as opposed to narrow stairways that have a sense of urgency about them. The staircase can serve as a sort of a vertical piazza, deliberately designed to serve as a meeting space, a teaching area, or an auditorium setting. “It [is] purposefully designed to actually mix the students and allow them as they move up and down the building to see and almost be part of what is happening in the other learning communities”, says Richard Leonard, director of Hayball, an architectural firm that has designed vertical schools. Well-designed staircases are crucial because they foster walking and physical moving among kids, rather than using lifts, which cannot accommodate all students during break times.

To compensate for the lack of outdoor ground spaces, vertical schools often have specifically designated ‘play areas’ or ‘green spaces’. These are mostly placed at the top of the building and offer an alternative to school playgrounds. Green spaces, a loose term for any man-made surface that is host to objects and features of natural environments, such as grass, trees, and shrubs, are used to break apart the monotony of concrete-and-glass urban conglomerates. In addition, natural environments have proved to do wonders for children’s cognitive abilities, and the thinking here is that even an emulation of those will help kids learn better.

In those vertical schools that are choosing to cooperate with the local community, it is not a rarity to find public-access facilities, such as gyms, public kitchens, and bathrooms. Of course, to ensure children’s safety, these are often appropriately separated, or are to be used by the public outside of school hours. Since vertical schools are built in densely populated areas, it is important that they can provide easy access to public transportation.

Vertical schools favour innovative teaching methods and the use of technology. Unlike horizontal schools, that largely depend on the ‘cells and bells’ model, which in turn, utilises the age-old teacher-centred approach to education, vertical schools are student-oriented and innovative. With their modern labs and workshops, vertical schools can be said to favour STEM subjects. However, the focus of vertical schools is on cooperation, sustainability, interaction, and innovation.

There are many opportunities for secondary and tertiary students to have practical experience in their fields of study due to the proximity of many different companies. Vertical schools are ideal for the flipped classroom model, as the students are often required in those situations to cooperate with each other outside the classroom. With their many ‘hangout’ and study spaces, which are much closer than in sprawling, horizontal school buildings, vertical schools foster peer instruction. Furthermore, rather than stacking schools on top of each other, vertical schools are mostly designed to create something called ‘student communities’, where classrooms for students from different grades are mixed up.

A great example of how vertical schools can be flexible and accommodate different learning methods is the The Heights Building in Arlington, Virginia, a home to two educational programmes: HB Woodlawn, a liberal, progressive, and egalitarian school, and the Stratford Program, a school for students with severe intellectual disabilities. These secondary school programmes are understood from the start to have different needs; HB Woodlawn is based on the liberal education movements of the sixties and seventies, where students can design their own courses and are on first-name terms with their teachers. It is very arts oriented, from visual arts to theatre and music, but maths and sciences are far from neglected.

The Stratford Program serves students aged 11 to 22, many of whom use wheelchairs and have sensory and motor disabilities, which means they need to be accompanied by a personal helper throughout the day. The programme is very individualised and focuses on vocational and community skills that help with independence.

The Heights Building was designed with these needs in mind. There is a large, open lobby with tiered seating to foster student socialisation. Each floor has a roof terrace equipped for outdoor learning. The classrooms are furnished with flexible furniture that allow them to be moved around and rearranged according to the preferred teaching method or class in session.

In a bid to make learning more interactive, each classroom is equipped with smart panel screens that allow students to share screens from their tablets. The tablets are school-issued. To provide privacy and ease of access, two easily accessible levels within a designated wing of the building are dedicated to the Stratford Programme. It has its own gym, courtyard, and occupational physical therapy suite. There is also a ‘sensory cottage’, which helps students calm down and relax.

Vertical schools have been present for some time in the Western world, but only recently in Asia. The trend can be said to be booming around the world, with more and more metropolitan areas building or planning to build vertical schools. These do not need to be purely educational buildings, however, as seen in the case of the Chicago-based Roosevelt University. Roosevelt University boasts a vertical campus, which is home to its Academic, Student Life, and Residence centres, combining the purely academic with the residential, campus college experience.

Vertical campuses can, even more than virtual schools, become an extension of the surrounding, urban community, by virtually having students live in and with them. With its 32 storeys, the Roosevelt University vertical campus is the second tallest education building in the United States. The building is modeled on the famous Constantin Brancusi sculpture, ‘The Endless Column’, which pays homage to fallen Romanian soldiers of the First World War. The symbolism here is centred on the idea of the never-ending pursuit of noble goals, such as knowledge and intellectual growth. The upper, residential part of the tower has 634 beds and is designed around the concept of suite-style dwelling units and lounges. The lower levels have everything a self-respecting university would be expected to have, from science laboratories to a dining hall.

Bromley, south-east London will soon be home to the tallest vertical school in the UK. The ongoing project will be a secondary, ten-storey school, with a focus on science, health, and wellbeing excellence. The Shaw Futures Academy, as it’s called, is planned to be a flexible learning space, with an outlook to interact and integrate with the surrounding community. The building will host three stacked schools, one for each key stage. They will all come with their own dining and social spaces, learning resource centres, and outdoor spaces. Students aged 11 to 13 will have their learning spaces at the ground floor, level 1, and level 2. Apart from a dining area, these will have general classrooms, science labs, and a music studio. Students aged 13 to 16 will have their hub at level 3.

The school is designed so as to minimise their interaction with younger students, but they themselves have shared spaces with older students on upper floors. They will have general learning spaces, as well as highly specialised health, biomedical, sports, computing, and electronics classrooms that allow for practice-based education and help develop problem-solving skills. The oldest students (aged 16 to 19) will have their social hub at level 8. Highly specialised learning pathways will allow them to work with employers in the science, health, and wellbeing sectors.

The building is designed with a central podium that accommodates larger spaces, such as the main hall and activity studio, or fully enclosed spaces like changing rooms and stores. Classrooms and other teaching spaces are kept to the perimeter for optimal natural light exposure. The concrete frame structure with flat slabs and minimal load-bearing partitions allow for and anticipate (as is natural in school buildings) any potential inner re-planning. To encourage different and alternative teaching methods, classrooms come in different sizes and shapes, and with standardised, movable furniture.

Australia is experiencing significant population growth and its already densely populated urban areas are set to become a home to even more people. As a consequence, the country as a whole needs to open many more new schools, some of which are to be vertical. For example, the New South Wales government has announced that by 2031 it will need more than 160,000 public school places for kids from kindergarten through secondary school.

The Victorian Education Minister has stated that, by 2022, their state will need an additional 90,000 public school places. Some reports indicate that Australia can anticipate an increase of around 650,000 students by 2026, which would “require the construction of seven new twenty-five  student classrooms every day for ten years.” With steep land prices and a lack of space for traditional, horizontal schools, going vertical seems like a natural, cost-effective solution.

Vertical schools are a recent phenomenon in Australia. The only exception is St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, a 1976 eight-storey brutalist building designed by Noel Bell and Herbert F. Hely, in which students occupy the top three levels and the roof. Most Australian vertical schools nowadays can be divided into mid-rise and high-rise, with those in Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland reflecting European precedents, typified by having a central atrium. Melbourne’s first vertical school, Haileybury City Campus, opened in 2017.

Before it was repurposed and renovated, the ten-storey building served as a call centre. Two floors are dedicated to art facilities, with a professional drama studio. It also has a sports hall and university level science labs. The school accommodates 800 students ranging from kindergarten to year 12. Students enter school using an underground basement and they are provided with bike storage. Although placed in the heart of the city, Haileybury City Campus has 1,500 square meters of outdoor spaces and gardens.

Another Melbourne school will be even more eco-friendly. Set to open in 2022, the four-storey Fishermans Bend Secondary School will accommodate 1,100 students. This state-of-the-art school was designed in cooperation with the local community and will be environmentally friendly, housing solar panels and solar batteries, food production gardens, outdoor learning terraces, and sustainable material selection. Its facade will be dynamically designed in order to maintain optimal temperatures without losing on natural light.

There will also be bicycle storage facilities for students and staff. With a strong focus on STEAM, the school will have a number of high-tech features, including a fabrication lab and a robotics workshop. A member of the local government said: “The community’s vision for a Fishermans Bend secondary school is now becoming a reality and students will soon get to attend a modern, innovative and important local school.”

Australia has plans to build many more. For example, there is the ongoing integrated redevelopment of Arthur Phillip High School (APHS) and adjoining Parramatta Public School in New South Wales. This will be the state’s first public high-rise school that will also serve as the prototype for future-focused learning integrated with curriculum-based studies. The school will be 17 storeys high, while the primary school is four storeys. Together, they will accommodate anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 students.

The Arthur Phillip High School, being a high-rise building, will provide open, outdoor spaces by generously employing balconies and rooftop gardens. Students won’t be divided by year level, but rather will form “schools within school,” with multi-year communities of some 330 students occupying two storeys as their home bases. “Vertically-programmed, future-focused learning schools allow for the accommodation of more than 2,000 students on reduced footprints, within town centres, adjacent to transport nodes and with an equivalent area of stacked open space to traditional low-rise schools on large land footprints,” says Andrew Cortese, Managing Partner at Grimshaw Global, the architectural firm that designed the Parramatta school.

The Queensland government has announced a $500-million proposal to build two vertical schools in inner-city Brisbane to accommodate for an estimated 3,000 new students in the next five years. Newcastle, New South Wales has plans to build a 12-storey school that would house 1,250 students. Each floor would be home to a different year group, and the building will include an indoor sports hall. Some of these are built from the scratch, while others refurbish old (office) buildings. Others combine both methods.

For example, the six-storey Adelaide Botanic High School is a refurbished building previously used by the University of South Australia. This building is connected by a glass atrium to a new seven-storey structure with a rooftop terrace that will accommodate 1,250 students once finished in 2022. “Without hesitation, vertical schools will become ubiquitous amongst our most significant town centres on major transport nodes. Perhaps we could promote learning led urban renewal as the most important social initiative,” notes Andrew Cortese.

Not everyone is equally excited by the prospect of building new vertical schools. Already in early 2019, the New South Wales Education Minister Robert Stokes announced that the government will no longer prioritise high-rise schools because they are “complicated to build and difficult to adapt to changing needs.” The ‘changing needs’ can refer to the flexibility of schools to ‘grow and shrink’, according to student enrollment.

With vertical schools, it will be hard to imagine how they could accommodate students beyond their maximum capacity, inflexible and restricted by space as they are. Others argue that vertical schools will only increase congestion in already dense urban areas, which is especially true for business districts. Adding thousands of students to already busy commuting pipelines might lead to overcrowding on the ground.

The brunt of criticism on vertical schools comes from the children’s health perspective. The cause of concern is the obvious lack of outdoor activities for students, despite vertical schools’ attempts to alleviate this by building terraces and rooftop playgrounds. “Placing astro-turf on the roof of a high rise school and calling it a ‘play area’ isn’t going to solve the problem. Children need to be playing and exercising in and amongst nature, breathing in fresh, clean air if they are to have the best potential for normal cognitive development,” said Dr Tony Matthews at the School Infrastructure Summit in 2018.

Another cause for concern are ‘urban canyons’ – long stretches of tall buildings that reduce airflow and trap toxic emissions from vehicles. All of this is, obviously, having an effect on children’s health, and the solution might lie in the concept of a holistic approach to green city-building.

While vertical schools solve the problem of urban density and lack of space for educational facilities, the government must carefully plan how to build them. The benefits of having a state-of-the-art futuristic vertical school (and campus) might be lost in a city that is not environmentally friendly. Clearly, vertical schools and the education that they offer must be a community effort, even more so than traditional schools. With the urban spaces across the world becoming denser, filled with skyscrapers and imposing buildings, going vertical seems to be the only viable solution for inner-city students.

Due to many internship opportunities and the general experience of living in a sprawling metropolis, vertical schools are perhaps more favourable to secondary and tertiary students. For primary and preschool students, vertical schools will have to learn from experience and research, which are both lacking at the moment. In both cases, vertical schools are pioneering innovative learning methods, and as such could become the ubiquitous educational institution of the future.

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