Driven by leading pedagogical research and innovation, The Centre for Higher Education Studies (CHES) supports high-achieving Victorian government secondary school students with state-of-the-art learning spaces, specialist facilities and leading expertise, offering a unique pathway for students to transition from secondary to tertiary studies.

Designed by Fieldwork and Brand Architects for the Victorian School Building Authority, CHES is set amongst the dense urban fabric of Melbourne’s South Yarra, on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and Bunurong peoples of the East Kulin Nations. The challenging site, sleeved between high-rise buildings to the north and south, drove Fieldwork and Brand Architects to explore innovative ways to connect students with natural light, ventilation and landscape to improve learning outcomes — a pursuit developed in consultation with Dr Ben Cleveland, Associate Professor in Learning Environments and Co-Director of LEaRN at Melbourne School of Design.

CHES is set amongst the dense urban fabric of Melbourne’s South Yarra: this site presented a challenge, being sleeved between buildings with a high-rise to the south. Innovation in both design and construction was required to deliver this first-of-its-kind learning facility. With a high-rise building on the title boundary, authority easements surrounding the site and high voltage powerlines along the Chapel Street frontage, this project was certainly not short of its challenges to be overcome.

From early sketch design phase, the concept of integrating a central atrium was critical in unlocking the potential of the site, drawing natural light deep into the narrow site and ensuring each learning space has equitable amenity. A public interface to Chapel Street is fostered with a corrugated, pre-cast concrete façade, animated with planter boxes of cascading greenery, “so the views out have a foreground of landscape,” explains Fieldwork Co-Director, Quino Holland. Upon entry, movement is directed through a large lobby space, into a foyer, reception area and café space — an active hub for students and the community to be welcomed, socialise, and engage in private or small group work, set against the vibrancy of the atrium beyond.

Located at the heart of the building, a hybrid timber and aluminium Raico glazing system presents as an all-timber facade spanning from ground floor to roof level, drawing natural light deep into the narrow site and ensuring each learning space has equitable amenity. The Ground Floor multi-purpose spaces accommodate the transition of incoming and existing groups, as well as providing pedagogical settings not offered in the learning neighborhoods above.

Landscaped with lush ferns and epiphytes by long-term collaborators, Openwork, this vertical volume is lined with sustainably harvested Victorian Ash timber and glazed windows. As the heart of the building, “the atrium gives a sense of the whole building’s energy — the movement through the staircases and glimpses into the activity of the classrooms,” says Quino. The space is covered by a transparent and lightweight ETFE inflatable roof, which requires less structural support than traditional glazed roofs and provides effective light control and thermal insulation. The dotted, double-skin membrane casts ephemeral, patterned shadows through the atrium, connecting students with natural circadian rhythms.

Roofing to the Atrium is a state-of-the-art Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) inflatable roof system imported from Germany. The ETFE roofing system is linked to the building’s BMS system effectively controlling the amount of light in the building whilst also providing thermal insulation to the open atrium space below.

A 275-seat auditorium allows the student cohort to gather for lectures and presentations, and provides a facility for community events. When the curtains are drawn back, the space is united with a west-facing landscaped terrace with curved seating, connecting CHES to the adjacent Melbourne High School.

“The architecture enables students to be passionate, innovative and creative by promoting meaningful dialogue between staff and students, fostering a sense of ownership through flexible and varied learning settings.” says Farnia Askari, Co-Director of Brand Architects. Students can often be seen clustered around the teacher in tight discussion groups, while at other times, they can sprawl through the open space into adjacent small groups or break-out nooks. The educational planning of the facility enables multiple organisational and pedagogical modes to occur and evolve over time, supported by the principle of “variety and choice.”

The floor plan is mirrored on each side of the atrium, allowing each learning environment to benefit from views to nature — either from the atrium or across Chapel Street or the western terrace — improving learning outcomes and developing students’ observational relationships with ecology. State-of-the-art audio-visual facilities are embedded in all learning spaces to allow for virtual and hybrid learning from anywhere in the state.

Throughout, Fieldwork and Brand Architects sought to make the architecture an educational tool in itself. “We wanted to be open about how the building is constructed, and how the materials and systems are put together,” says Quino. As such, CHES’ hybridised structure, combining laminated timber and concrete to reduce embedded carbon, is left exposed, allowing students to observe the tectonics of the architecture. Galvanized ductwork, electrical systems and fixings details are also visibly expressed, becoming tools for teaching and discussion.

In keeping with the facility’s mission to prepare students for tertiary study, Fieldwork and Brand Architects embraced natural colours, materials, and textures that give the space an honest and sophisticated expression. The building’s extensive use of timber is complemented by compressed fibre-cement wall panels and ‘Woodwool’ ceiling infills, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere for teaching and learning. Resilient floors and carpets in nature-inspired tones change in colour from level to level, subtly orienting students across the building. CHES’ top floor offers separate student and teacher break-out spaces and an extensive outdoor terrace for outdoor learning and recreation. A pergola structure is topped with solar panels, creating shade while generating power to feed back into the building’s electrical grid.

CHES sets a new benchmark for pre-tertiary educational facilities in Australia, testament to the design team’s rigorous engagement and implementation of leading pedagogical research. Fieldwork’s initial vision was preserved by Brand Architects in the project’s seamless execution, delivering progressive teaching and learning environments that fuse connections to nature with incidental opportunities of learning and development — ultimately, supporting the tertiary ambitions of CHES’ talented student cohort.