Important findings from the design of inclusive, alternative and flexible schools


An engaging learning environment creates a sense of place, purpose, and community for all students and staff. The research and design process carried out as part of our most recent project, the Hester Hornbrook Academy, shows the importance of authentic inclusive design.

By understanding the diverse experiences, backgrounds and needs of the students, our team was able to create a campus that promotes connection and collaboration, promotes a sense of security and belonging, helps to unite different personalities and respects the needs of everyone. Alternative flexible educational settings are aimed at groups that are normally not recognized in the dialogue of contemporary educational design.

These can be young parents currently living in or outside of home care, young people living with mental illness, homeless, or cut off from regular education. Our driving question during the briefing and design process for this unique campus was, “How can the function and design of alternative flexible education schools better support students through an enriching educational experience both inside and outside the classroom?”

We found that a sensitive, community-based approach was crucial. These schools must be specifically designed to reflect a relational pedagogy that encompasses the broader support network of staff and community welfare services built around students.

Locations must also provide a variety of learning centers, mindfulness rooms, and recreational facilities so that students can immerse themselves in and take control of their educational path. Inclusive and trauma-aware design principles were the foundation for HHA, and we worked closely with the Hester Hornbrook team to achieve these results.

The academy should convey a feeling of well-being, security and home. Its domestic scale offers learning spaces that are strategically distributed over the entire site and connected via interstitial, activated and readable traffic areas.

This activation and visibility creates formal and informal connections while promoting a sense of security for students. Rooms for students to socialize, to eat, to prepare food, as well as rooms for students to shower and wash, meet the different needs of the student community.

The interior design provides students with calm sensory stimulation throughout the day. Study areas have been created with a range of furniture options and a balanced mix of hues, materials and textural finishes. This diversity gives the students the choice of which rooms to use and, above all, how to use them.

Biophilia is another expression of inclusive design that is considered throughout the academy and promotes the physical and mental wellbeing of students.

The use of plants and greens promotes mindfulness through a connection with nature, and these nature motifs extend to other decor details like furniture upholstery and calming color palettes.

Balancing and integrating these design features is important for a project of this type. The functional planning of the campus also shows how the strategic use and placement of informal and formal learning environments can give students a sense of freedom while still providing security both internally and externally.

The academy’s indoor-outdoor transition and breakout area is complemented by a series of pavilions that ensure that students are continuously engaged in new rooms and activities throughout the day without being separated from the main building. Providing functional spaces for student wellbeing programs in the school curriculum, such as physical activity and team building, was a key component in supporting a vibrant campus culture and community.

An internal basketball court, fitness rooms and spontaneous relaxation rooms promote healthy work and play habits of the students and support positive lifestyle habits that the students adopt for a lifetime.

From a broader perspective, the design of the Hester Hornbrook Academy also celebrates its location context. Designed to reflect the vibrant Sunshine community and values, it proudly stands as a place where people from all social and cultural backgrounds are inspired to get involved. Inclusive design is the way forward for alternative schools with flexible education.

Image: Hester Hornbrook Academy / Photo: Tatjana Plitt / Delivered.

Mark Freeman is a partner and specialist in the design of educational architecture at Gray Puksand.

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