Inner-city secondary college build challenges conventional design for school furniture

When ThomsonAdsett was first tasked with creating the furniture and layout to be used within the first high-rise style school to be built in inner-city Brisbane, their starting point was adopting bold design which challenged established concepts of how learning spaces should be used.

The result for Fortitude Valley State Secondary College (FVSSC), which opened its doors to students at the start of 2020, includes a seven-level high vertical building which is furnished with pieces made specifically for the school.

Principal Sharon Barker explained the result is a unique school with bespoke furniture which reflects the needs of its student and teacher population for now and into the future.

“Nobody thinks this looks like any other school they have seen,” she explained. “We had hoped to offer something different to that which is found in other schools, but what we have goes far beyond our wildest expectations.

“From the very beginning of this project, we were told if someone walked into a classroom and just saw row after row of desks and chairs, we would have failed.

“It really challenged my own way of thinking about the spaces and how we could do things differently, to build an environment which would reflect our vision of creating a community of agile learners who are bold, resilient and kind.”

The Brookes Street Precinct of the school opened in January 2020 for Year 7 students with the St Paul’s Terrace Precinct, which includes the seven-storey junior learning building, opening mid-2020. The school will service students from Years 7 to 12 by 2025.

ThomsonAdsett was engaged to exclusively design the space and furniture which would be utilised within the building itself, led by Chad Brown, Group Director of Communities and Bianca DiLuzio, ThomsonAdsett’s Interior Designer for the project.

“We knew there was plenty of scope for us to develop furniture and layouts which would not only challenge traditional concepts of learning spaces, but re-invent them,” Chad said of the project.

“The building aesthetics of the FVSSC are the juxtaposition between form, function, pattern and finishes which create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

“The furniture designed and installed supports personalised, embodied and situated learning which allows students to pivot between listening to their teachers and independently and /or cooperatively working through their tasks at hand.

“We were cognisant of the need for teachers and learners to be able to easily arrange furniture to allow them to comfortably work individually or with others.”

Consequently, FVSSC features moveable spaces from walls to desks, writing surfaces to specialist spaces which allow rooms to be expanded into larger spaces or reduced for smaller learning groups as required.

Principal Sharon Barker worked with Chad and Bianca on the design of the furniture, which became a steep learning curve for herself.

“Chad and Bianca would come to me with ideas, which challenged our approach to the design of the learning spaces.  They really helped us to re-think that approach. It was a great process and one which really challenged my thinking about what a contemporary classroom could look like.

“While Chad and Bianca encouraged me to think more broadly in terms of design, they were also always prepared to adapt their own thinking to the feedback and that has helped us to create a truly unique and inspiring learning environment.

“Critically by consulting with us as educators, Chad and Bianca both understood and appreciated what we needed to make sure it was workable for students and staff and encouraged learning.”

As the design process was taking place before students started at the school, Chad and Bianca worked with Sharon to bring in future FVSSC students to “test-drive” the furniture. Students were encouraged to move the furniture around to their own taste and learning style and see all of the possibilities for adapting the furniture.

This allowed them to see what worked for students. Sometimes it would be moving desks next to or across from each other to facilitate collaborative learning and for others, it would mean being able to find a quiet spot within the room to work in.

“The students came in and rated their experience of the space and furniture and that feedback become an important element in the future design decisions,” Sharon said. “It was a truly collaborative approach where my opinion as an educator was valued and included as was that of our prospective students.

“We could not be happier with the end result.”