by Lynne Blundell

A new learning centre at Ravenswood School for Girls will provide the opportunity to develop a management plan for reducing energy consumption, as well as an ecologically sensitive landscaping strategy with the aim of re-using rainwater

Despite widespread criticism, some innovative designs are starting to emerge in the Rudd Government’s schools construction program, with the private and independent schools sector making the most of the funding opportunity to push through concepts that may otherwise have been stymied by red tape.

Chris Johnson, former Government Architect and chair of the Design Review Panel for the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, told The Fifth Estate that there are some very exciting and innovative designs coming before the review panel.

“Most public schools are doing fairly standard designs but some of the private schools are using the opportunity to create buildings with some very exciting and innovative aspects,” said Johnson.

The tight deadlines for applying for funding meant schools were streamlining their internal design approval processes with some positive outcomes as a result.

“At times the normal processes contain so many checks and balances that the final result can end up quite ordinary. Sometimes when you’re forced to hurry and make decisions quickly innovative designs might get through the approval process more easily.

“What we’re seeing is not the usual rectangle. The program seems to have opened up a new direction in schools’ designs by enabling a breath of fresh air. Of course there are two sides to the coin and in some cases the deadline results in some very standard designs,” Johnson said.

Sustainability features of the designs were also showing flair, said Johnson, with the use of passive energy, water recycling, rainwater tanks and features that appear in 6 Green Star buildings.

Chris Johnson says there are some exciting and innovative school designs being submitted to the BER design review panel

 Ravenswood School for Girls, a Uniting Church school on  Sydney’s north shore, has used the $2.5 million funding it received through the BER program to add a junior library to its learning centre.

 Working in conjunction with architecture firm Bligh Voller Nield, Ravenswood consulted the school community when coming up with a design for the learning centre. The outcome was a focus on sustainability, flexibility, more outdoor and green areas and a mix of quiet and social spaces.

According to Ravenswood, the new building will provide the opportunity to develop a management plan for reducing energy consumption, as well as an ecologically sensitive landscaping strategy with the aim of re-using rainwater.

Chris Johnson said the result was a “transparent, futuristic” design containing large sections of glass, a contrast to the existing conventional brick and tile school buildings.

Another Sydney school, Catholic primary school St Catherine’s at Waverley, is waiting on approval from the BER Design Review Panel for its early education centre.

Principal Lynne Stone told TFE  that if the approval for funding is received it will allow the school to build a highly interactive centre which uses indoor/outdoor learning areas.

“We have a very strong educational vision around the facility. It is a difficult site and we would not have the money for it without the government funding,” said Mrs Stone.

A separate art and design centre which the school “desperately needs” would be paid for through fund raising.

In the public sector, architecture firm AJ+C has been engaged by Bovis Lend Lease to deliver various projects in 14 primary schools in northern Sydney.

The project teams are working to very tight programs: design, planning and tender documentation will be prepared in a matter of weeks rather than months, and standardised design templates have been used to speed up documentation. However, according to the firm, this is not “cookie cutter” design.

Project Architect, Michael Rogers, believes most of the work involves integrating the design templates into the “real world” environment where topography, urban design and heritage issues come into play. Furthermore, each school principal plays an active role in shaping each project to meet their school’s particular needs.

“The new buildings are located and oriented to relate to the existing buildings and create useful open play spaces with good solar access and shelter from winter winds.” says Rogers. “The quality of entire schools will be improved by new covered areas, landscaping and accessibility provisions covered under the BER funding.”

According to the firm, the work with International Grammar School (profiled here) and Bovis Lend Lease explodes the myth that good design suffers under tight deadlines. Although the work with Bovis Lend Lease does have template design, there are cases where AJ+C are required to design outside the square due to space constraints and environmental factors.

Architecture firm AJ+C says the work done on the International Grammar School in Sydney explodes the myth that good design can not happen under tight deadlines

With the addition of new buildings, the older halls and libraries are being reconfigured into classrooms or administration offices and outside spaces are being utilised for outdoor classrooms and learning centres.

Criticism aplenty

Part of the Rudd government’s stimulus package, the BER program has also attracted criticism from some sectors of the building industry and the Federal Opposition for its haphazard funding allocations and rushed timeframe, which they claim causes inefficiency and poor decision making.

Brian Welch, executive director of the Master Builders Association of Victoria, said that while the government funding was a much needed shot in the arm for the Victorian economy, the bidding process was causing tremendous pressure for builders.

“The current open tender system allows more than five tenderers to bid for a project, resulting in severe price cutting among competitors. While clients, including government, might think that this offers them the best deal, it actually increases time and financial pressures on builders and estimators without any benefit to the client.

“They often have too little time to prepare a well-considered quote, are too afraid to speak up when overwhelmed and fear being ‘blacklisted’ or left out of future jobs,” Welch said.

The Government has appointed managing contractors to speed up the delivery process. The table below shows the managing contractors appointed for NSW.

Managing contractors appointed to deliver new schools in NSW


Managing Contractor

Hunter / Central Coast

Bovis Lend Lease

Illawarra / South East

Richard Crookes Construction

North Coast / New England

The Reed Group

Northern Sydney

Bovis Lend Lease


Laing O’Rourke

South Western Sydney

Hansen Yuncken



Western NSW

Laing O’Rourke

Western Sydney

Brookfield Multiplex

The Department of Education and Training has written to school principals to confirm that their managing contractor is the first point of contact for projects. The Department says the managing contractor is responsible for working with principals to develop solutions that “reflects the school’s wishes, is affordable within the school’s funding allocation and meets the BER guidelines.”

The Government claims the approvals process, one of the areas targeted by critics, has improved.

Margo Kouvaris, the BER Program Office’s Regional Program Director for the Illawarra & South East region, says that the first stage of the approvals process, known as the Preliminary Cost Estimate (PCE), is moving quicker for Round 2 projects.

“It’s encouraging to see that our internal processes are improving as we progress. Both the BER Program Office and the managing contractors are constantly looking for ways to be more efficient in our delivery of the program by reviewing our processes, helping us to deliver more projects to more schools, on time and on budget.”

The Fifth Estate – for sustainable property news

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