St Paul’s College Modernisation
State-of-the-art, nurturing environment for students with complex needs
“We’re most proud of the message our new campus sends students and families when they arrive each day: you are highly valued and deserve the best environment possible in which to spend each school day.”
Tim Hemphill, Principal at St Paul’s College, Balwyn
St Paul’s College is a Catholic specialist school for children with intellectual, physical, profound multiple and sensory disabilities. Its campus modernisation brief was unusually complex and challenging. In just six months, we needed to transform a compact, rundown, vacant school in Balwyn into a nurturing, adaptable, state-of-the-art facility with strong indoor-outdoor connection that’s purpose-built for students with complex disabilities and high needs. In the process, we had to inspire and engage staff and parents wary of relocating due to the upheaval for students.
Constraints are sometimes pivotal to design success. St Paul’s tight timeframe required extraordinary collaboration, flexibility and innovation from the entire project team, which created exceptional results. The Balwyn campus comprised three ageing forms – a brick learning building flanked by a 100-year-old hall and relocatables – disconnected from each other and from undertilised grounds. Students require high staff-student ratios, fully integrated ramps and equipment like hoists and anchor points throughout, and endlessly adaptable learning spaces. Moving students takes time, so a single learning environment must accommodate diverse activities from meals to art, equipment storage, and calming spaces for retreat. Easy access to bathrooms and outdoor play – used extensively for wellbeing and learning – is essential.
Our design response transformed learning at St Paul’s – using a site smaller than its former campus –by maximising every inch, inside and out. We integrated indoor and outdoor space via glazing, curved internal joinery with playful cut-outs, and curvy external ramps, paths, playgrounds and landscaping. We transformed the hall into a zone for senior students and opened up the internalised main building, reconfiguring it for junior and middle students. We introduced shared spaces including staff retreats, a central Discovery Centre popular for gatherings from assemblies to yoga classes, and a calming, atmospheric sensory room using state-of-the-art LUMES light panels that students can interact with or program.
A split-level design maximised space and functionality. Although it posed accessibility challenges, we resolved them using ramps integrated as a design feature. Relocatables were repurposed for services like bathrooms and a new café and art/hospitality space, which enabled introduction of VCAL and is now building ties with the local community.
Students, families, staff and visitors are welcomed each day into a model school environment for young people whose complex disabilities impact every aspect of their lives. Principal Tim Hemphill says the overwhelmingly positive response from the school community shows it surpasses expectations. Staff now have space for collaborative planning and skills sharing. Partnerships with mainstream schools are supported by warm, inviting spaces for meetings and professional learning. Beautiful new work and play areas have transformed the lives of students in St Paul’s care. The much loved central Discovery Centre incorporates open space for small and large cohorts of teachers and specialists, a bespoke library space, and a 21st Century Sensory Room. Purposeful organic textures, colours and forms create warm, soft, acoustically sensitive environments in indoor and outdoor spaces. Balancing specialist and mainstream elements, the design places challenging and cocooning features alongside state-of-the art sensory and disability-specific assistive technologies, delivering a unique, engaging, playful, living school environment.
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