A Case Study of the BER

The Montessori School

The new BER-funded Early Childhood Building was designed for Montessori learning practices, including hands-on and project based activities both inside and outside the 'classroom'.

Below is an excerpt from the Association of School Business Administrators November 2011 publication 'Associate'

The Montessori School accommodates students from three years old to the end of their secondary education. When eiw architects were commissioned to look at a masterplan for the site, the school community was housed in various disparate buildings which had reached capacity as effective learning spaces. Stage 1 replaced one of the lightweight buildings with two new learning buildings and Stage 2 saw a new Early Childhood Centre replace an existing classroom building as part of the BER programme. The School desired to base the redevelopment on environmentally responsible design with minimal disruption to both the bushland and the schools’ occupants during the construction period. Reducing on-going energy and water costs was also an important factor.

The three new school buildings have been integrated into their suburban, bushland site through the use of natural building materials, including stabilised earth and plantation-pine plywood cladding. Passive solar design principles of orientation, effectively-sized overhangs, cross-ventilation and insulation were enhanced through material choices and clerestory windows with light shelves for effective daylighting. Thermal comfort was maintained by balancing the thermal mass of the stabilised earth with highly insulated external timber framed stud walls. The new buildings contain no mechanical air conditioning or heating, though allowance has been made for future gas space heaters. After three years of occupation, these have not been required. The artificial lighting is often rendered redundant, due to the light shelves and shaded north windows. All materials, finishes and colours were carefully selected to minimise ongoing maintenance and eliminate harmful off-gassing.  

The Montessori teaching philosophy heavily dictated the design of the buildings, as standard teaching blocks would not suit the school’s pedagogy. The buildings have multiple usage patterns intended to reduce the teacher-student hierarchy. Students are generally involved in multiple activities at once, and therefore require a flexible layout to allow spaces to be used for a range of different activities. Because each classroom is linked to an outside space, it affords the opportunity for gardening and nature activities.  Students can freely move between buildings and spaces to encourage peer-to-peer learning and self-directed investigation based on experiential activities.

Having completed Stage 1 merely months before the BER commenced, the School was able to use the same building module to complete the Early Childhood Centre, ensuring the BER building fitted the school’s pedagogy and environmental philosophy. This also meant eiw architects could keep within the strict BER timeframes and start on site six months after commencing sketch design.

The importance of natural materials is integral to Montessori teaching practices – all Montessori furniture and educational tools are made from timber. To reflect this, timber was used structurally, as the wall framing and exposed trusses, and used as external cladding. The trusses not only have a functional and aesthetic benefit, but also act as educational tools. The environmental benefit of materials was balanced with a tight budget and timeframe, with all timber trusses and wall framing pre-fabricated.

A large rainwater tank collects all rainwater from the roofs of Stage 1, which is then used for toilets and gardens. The Stage 2 building incorporates individual rainwater tanks, accessible by students for gardening. Each building has an allowance for future inverters and roof-mounted photo-voltaic cells, with a government grant allowing one set of cells to be installed this year.

With tight budget restrictions from a capital grant, a planned shade structure over the amphitheatre had to be removed from the Stage 1 works. However, with an NSP grant from the Federal Government, the School was able to provide this shade structure in time for the hot summer months. Once again, as the structure had already been designed, the School could meet their time deadlines for installation. This covered space has allowed an extension to the School’s outdoor gathering areas and has become an integral part of the School’s campus.

The decision to use passive building solutions will have a direct effect on the life cycle costs of the building. Given there are no mechanical heating or cooling systems on site, monies which might be used to repair and upgrade these systems can be used to advance the learning programs. The completion of the redevelopment has enabled the school community to create a cohesive appearance with buildings that reflect their philosophical beliefs and particular teaching methods, without compromising comfort, function or cost.

Dani Martin, EIW Architects

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