Victorian-based practice McBride Charles Ryan (MCR) is perhaps best known for their expressive architecture and sculptural buildings. Dallas Brooks Community Primary School, a new learning and community facility in Broadmeadows, 18km north of Melbourne’s CBD, is no exception.

Taking home this year’s AIA’s Victorian Architecture Medal and William Wardell Award for Public Architecture for good reason, the new school was an initiative of the Broadmeadows Regeneration Scheme, which sits under the Victorian Government’s education strategy to ensure all communities in the state have access to modern learning facilities.

In this project, two existing school communities in the city’s most financially under-privileged suburb have been brought together. The resulting building is immediately attention-grabbing, with the community greeted by a modern and urban piece of architecture that rests against a suburban canvas.

Featuring a ‘city skyline’ silhouette, the school’s façade encircles around its learning and community spaces. A predominantly metal structure is clad with an array of multi-coloured bricks, while windows are interspersed at differing heights, allowing visual access into and out of this walled city.

This wall functions more than just as the physical perimeter of a new school. Its palette and form reminds of the need to protect some of the most vulnerable people in a marginalised community – young children – but also acts as an inclusive civic gesture; an invitation to the diverse groups to help shape the future of the suburb.

The latter function is already evident in the wall: the colours of the brickwork was requested by local residents, and recall the rich patterning of the traditional dress of some of the new ethnic groups within the community.

The inspired allegory is not limited to the façade, but extends into the school. According to MCR, internal spaces have been designed as an exploration of how new pedagogy methods may be reflected in various configurations of age-appropriate learning spaces. Behind the walls of Dallas Brooks, small communal teaching spaces are linked with open courtyards, with several shared areas sheltered by the surrounding classrooms and community facilities.

The reigning idea behind this plan is to facilitate the students’ journeys throughout their early academic career. For instance, teaching spaces have been planned to allow students to move cyclically through the school, so that their educational progression is paralleled by their physical movement and progress around the campus.

“Each learning community represents a different pedagogical method, expressed through different planning principles, driven by an overarching aim to improve literacy, numeracy and creativity in the students,” MCR explains.

“In this way the planning endeavours to construct an atmosphere that facilitates a fluid and rich journey through the early years of academic life.”

Incorporated facilities within the school therefore include an Early Learning Centre, a major Gym Hall and performance area, a broadcast room, an industrial style community kitchen and gathering space, a food technology teaching area, and an adult learning centre. In these spaces, early learning and primary school children are educated alongside their parents, who have opportunities to attend English classes and seek skills training and advice.

Creating comfortable spaces was also essential, with natural ventilation a key principle throughout the design of the school. Orientation of openings and plan form harness cross-flow ventilation, with fixed sun shading optimised to each orientation to minimise solar heat loads.

At the same time, exposed and painted internal blockwork walls afford high levels of insulated thermal mass to regulate internal environmental temperatures. This is supported by clerestory windows which are part of an automated night purge system, exhausting hot air at night to create an ambient temperature.

Automated monitoring also helped to optimise the school’s electrical and mechanical services. This strategy is an extension of the selection of energy efficient lighting, which is connected to motion and daylight sensors, as well as to the ceiling fans and low-energy hydronic heating system.

Building on these fundamental sustainability initiatives is the introduction of a ‘solar wall’ connected to the school gymnasium. An experimental measure not often seen in departmental projects, this wall provides energy efficient heating by harnessing passively ‘heated’ outside air that is mechanically ventilated throughout the space. Its resulting benefits include reduced on-going building costs, as well as the provision of higher volumes of fresh air to improve indoor air quality.

In all respects, Dallas Brooks Community Primary School is a sensitive and dignified response to the needs of local residents. Not only has it generated a unique educational environment, it has also produced a focal point for Dallas, both as a place of common ground, and as a generator for the suburb’s future potential.

Photography by John Gollings. The project will now progress on to the 2014 National Architecture Awards.