Building a Brand New Campus

This article was published in the May 2016 edition of Associate, the magazine produced by the Association of School Business Administrators.
Building a Brand New Campus: Bunbury Catholic College Mercy Campus

Being invited to design a brand new school is an incredible privilege, and comes with an enormous responsibility to get the foundations right. The design of Bunbury Catholic College’s Mercy Campus was one of those “blank slate” moments that most likely only happen once in an architect’s lifetime.

When we first accepted the commission, the location for the project was a farm.  There was no road and the land consisted of a series of paddocks and coastal scrub; the development that was happening in the area was literally changing it from farmland to suburb. Importantly, this presented us with an opportunity to tackle the school’s ideas and aspirations in relation to community, history, and connection to place.

We felt very strongly that the first three buildings of the campus should form a civic heart for the school and also play a significant role within this brand new suburb. To achieve this we began a process of designing for every scale, starting with the individual student, to a small friendship group, a class, a year group, the whole school and finally from the point of view of the broader community.

With stage one of the school now complete, two major contrasting features are now clearly visible. The first is the formal placement of the two key buildings: the Learning Commons and Young Adult Learners building. These sit opposite one another in what we call the “Town Square”, their design almost mirroring one another. The second is the informality of the interior spaces, which combine scale, colour and textured materials to address much more the scale of the individual student.

Once the brief was established, the first task was to create a campus masterplan from which all stages of the building programme could evolve. It made sense to start at the physical and metaphoric heart of the school, creating a strong campus identity, but also a centre from which all subsequent stages could radiate. This also had the practical benefit of minimising the impact of construction on campus life in subsequent years.

In many established Australian towns and cities civic buildings are built from brick, and we felt this material should be our starting point. As well as creating a cultural link, brick requires very little maintenance, provides texture to the buildings and reflects the surrounding coastal bushland in colour. We wanted to incorporate the use of materials, both internally and externally, that embraced the ageing process and could help to create a history for the school as generations of learners move through.

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Inside the buildings, we felt that there were big opportunities to create informal spaces for connection. We explored combinations of texture, natural materials and light to create tactile spaces that are comfortable to occupy. The bottleneck created by hallways and lockers has been avoided with these transitional spaces deliberately left open and informal, providing places for students to connect between classes.

Bold colour has been used to differentiate buildings and to respond to the bright West Australian light. Small spaces have been carved out of the brickwork and brightly coloured nooks create unexpected places for small groups to gather. We used plywood, face brickwork and coloured concrete to add warmth and to counteract the traditionally institutional environment of a classroom.

It was important to the school that the buildings responded to their values, both in their desire to offer a nurturing environment and in the way they wanted to teach. The result is a carefully considered hybrid between traditional classrooms and a desire for future flexibility. Throughout the school, traditional classrooms are able to be adapted through the use of operable walls, accommodating multi-class learning groups. We also incorporated a number of highly flexible spaces, including “The Terrace” in the YALS building, a space that is suitable for large gatherings, presentations and even lunchtime performances.

The new buildings were delivered at $2,450/m2 which represents excellent value for buildings of this type and quality. This is particularly impressive given that the stage one buildings included highly serviced facilities such as a TAFE standard kitchen, woodwork and metalwork facilities, a CAD design lab, canteen and science labs.

The buildings have been constructed using a concrete frame supporting a simple steel roof with infilled brick veneer walls. This process enabled very quick construction of floors and concrete columns to achieve roof cover independent of external brick walls being completed.

The building structure is very simple and does not have any elements (such as cross bracing) within walls which future proofs the campus and allows for easy modifications over time.  Stud walls were used throughout and were erected and lined with sarking to permit installation of building services and ceilings to proceed whilst brickwork continued to be laid to the perimeter of the building. This construction system saved several months of construction time and correspondingly delivered excellent value for our clients.

Although much of the early thinking was strongly linked to the school and its location amongst an entirely new suburb, there have been many lessons that we’ve taken from this project and applied to others. By taking a holistic, community-focussed view we have recognised the significant impact this built environment has on the children it holds as well as the role it plays in speaking to the community about the values of the school. The buildings of BCC Mercy look outward as much as they do inward, and create a beautiful and considered backdrop to the life that takes place there.

– Emma Williamson, Practice Director CODA Studio.

The BCC Mercy project was undertaken as a joint venture between CODA Studio and Broderick Architects.