Designing a School Science Building - Lessons Learned

Article by: Dani Martin | Associate Director | EIW Architects

2015 saw the completion of a complex and fun school building project – the Santa Maria College Science and Humanities Building (Consilii Centre). As an addition to the Mercy Building renovation and extension EIW completed in 2010, this unique building houses a variety of science classes in a modern, contemporary learning setting, and the mix of spaces is something quite different for science learning in Perth. Now, at the completion of the project and having learnt many lessons, I thought I’d share some thoughts on designing modern school science spaces:

point 1

1. There is not one type of science classroom. The curriculum can determine the use of the rooms, and setting up spaces for specific experimental work saves time in the classroom. Physics is taught differently to Chemistry and Biology, and middle school science is taught differently to senior school science. Enabling different settings within the building for various activities to happen creates an exciting environment for science learning. Having dedicated Biology spaces for example allows long-term experiments to be set up and monitored over many school-terms. Servicing and space planning can be individualised for the type of learning occurring in each area eg the Physics Lab is shaped long and narrow, able to be completely blacked out, and includes many power points for long-range laser and light experiments, while the Chemistry Labs have separate theory and fixed experimental zones to quickly analyse and experiment. This is one situation where multi-purpose spaces were not considered practical, for effective science learning.

point 2

2. Students can share experiment space and they will not set the building on fire. One of the unique initiatives in this building is the middle school science floor. Situated between three un-serviced Studio Labs, is one large experimental zone known as the ‘Super Lab’. This zone can accommodate up to sixty students doing experimental work, and allows for an economic use of space where five different classes can work in the area usually assigned for four standard serviced student labs. The Super Lab became an exciting learning space where teachers can share classes and peer learning increases creativity and understanding. As the central and arrival point in the middle school learning floor, the Super Lab is a new way of getting students excited about science. The expectation is that the area would be chaotic and noisy, but so far this has not been the case at all, with students extolling its values for making science more fun and visible. 

point 3

3. Listen to the science staff – they know more about teaching science than this architect ever will. We were lucky enough to have about four or five meetings with the science staff who were to use the new building, and then on-going communication during the documentation and construction phases. This was invaluable for determining how best to facilitate their learning styles, and for us to understand how to increase efficiency of the spaces day to day. As we developed up concepts and visited other science learning spaces, we travelled on the journey to this new science learning space together with the staff who would be using the space daily.  Both sides of the table pushed concepts, with the science staff stretching the learning possibilities just as much as the architects. This was such an exciting part of the process as discussions ranged from ‘what is science and how do you learn it’ down to the location of power points and gas turrets. It was a privilege for us as architects to work together with the staff to achieve a truly unique building that suits their specific needs.

point 4

4. Science is pervasive and omnipresent. As we commenced the design of the science spaces, we investigated the role of science in learning in the twenty-first century, and in our community. Science is so prevalent in so many aspects of our life, from developing the food we eat, interacting with the environment we live in, the fundamentals of life that keep us going and the buildings we inhabit. We wanted to bring these physical examples of science in our everyday lives, into the building, to excite the learners within. Additionally, science is not discrete –elements are interconnected and flow across separate disciplines.   Keeping maximum areas of glass between all rooms allows the physical examples of science to be in display for all users and passers-by – science is not completed by one researcher in a dark hidden lab. The use of glass-shelved display walls between labs shows a physical example of the different equipment used for science and the impacts science has on the world around us.

point 5

5. Services take up a lot of room – estimate the space required, then double it. And finally, a practical lesson, especially when working within the constraints of an existing building. Servicing for science labs takes up much more space than you realise. Gas lines, fire services, potable and non-potable water, data, power, communications, fire suppression devices, shut-off valves, emergency stops – science rooms need a lot of stuff. And a lot of those services have a required distance from all the other services. Be prepared that the cupboards you provide for storage while invariably be filled with various pipes, cables and conduits, and your walls will quickly fill up with numerous switches and dials. A thorough documentation process for all items, and understanding their particular spatial requirements is critical to ensuring everything is accommodated, while still allowing for all the Bunsen burners, beakers and pipettes that need to find a home (which will also be about double the quantity you think).

At the end of the process, the school has an exciting, innovative science learning area that enables them to teach and learn science in a new way. For more information on this project, please see the project details our website here.