Alamein, Victoria, Australia

Great design helps to build great communities.

That was the key premise for the Alamein Neighbourhood Learning Centre, in Melbourne’s southeast with a prominent position across from Alamein train station.

Our design elevates what could have been a straightforward response for our client, the City of Boroondara: either a simple update to the existing centre or pulling it down and started again.

But our response was not to create a flash, new building. Instead, we adopted a process of critical thinking to rise above the site’s constraints with a higher resolved, considered design. We wanted to give back more to the building than just better learning facilities, with stronger amenity, placemaking and more opportunities for the community to thrive.

Built in 1957, the existing site was originally a Maternal and Child Health Centre. It was converted into a neighbourhood learning centre in 1998 with two classrooms and a computer lab.

But with its residential aesthetic, the site lacked the presence of a community hub. Its public park and community garden were separate, while the indistinct side street entrance was confusing for first time visitors.

Inside, the interior was dated and problematic. The layout was filled with small, inefficient and ill-equipped spaces to manage the needs of a growing community. For example, the kitchen could rarely accommodate more than one person at a time, while the social spaces were behind the reception, making private and confidential conversations difficult. One of the toilets was missing a hand basin and the other lacked privacy. Finally, without a common or social space, the centre was missing out on creating important connections by users.

Starting with the existing form, we retained what we could with a new design and extension that lifts and pays homage to the building fabric. The extension follows the pitches of existing roof angles, with interesting design elements to bring old and new together creating a bolder community presence.

This includes a restful, muted palette, featuring a new roof colour as well as clean lines where the materiality changes. Adding a playful approach to texture, new feature brick detail mixes with raw brickwork to provide interest to the street frontage. Contemporary window shrouds highlight new window openings and the building entrance was redefined with better wayfinding to help attract people in and move around the site.

Inside, our approach was to draw upon the community engagement workshops run by council. We then used our tertiary education experience to develop more engaging classrooms, plus informal and social spaces designed to bring the community together.

As a result, the extended centre includes a dedicated common /social space, an extra craft workshop and a revamped computer room, with further upgraded spaces to add greater capacity for class and workshop offerings. AV capability is also included to facilitate remote learning opportunities, while the staff and reception spaces are now more secure as well. Considerable focus was given to the slope of the site to enhance accessibility, and we also ensured a better connection to the park and community garden, plus added a deck to the common room that extends into the outdoors.

The new facility includes:

  • A larger computer lab
  • A new craft workshop
  • Staff space with a shared office, meeting room and private reception
  • 2 large classrooms
  • Large common room with a deck, creating inside/outside space
  • Spacious common room equipped with public computers
  • Kitchen with cooking facilities
  • Toilet and separate disabled toilet; and
  • 4 Star GreenStar design, with solar panels, rainwater harvesting, thermal comfort and energy efficient, responsible materials.

Today, the centre is home to many community activities and programs, including Men’s Shed, Tiny Library, internet access, shopping and bus trips, as well as low-cost courses from health and wellbeing to English and literacy. Furthermore, it is also equipped to offer ESD workshops, helping to set a positive example to the community through its own ESD goals.

Within a vastly upgraded – and welcoming – new site, these services and programs help locals participate, learn and build life skills in more ways than ever before. Helping the community to be more socially connected, independent and happier for the future.