Reference designs the way forward 

Issue: Volume 100, Number 3

Posted: 19 March 2021
Reference #: 1HAHzu

A Christchurch school is loving its new and upgraded teaching blocks, both adapted from reference designs. 

 Reference designs have helped transform the learning environments at Gilberthorpe School.

Reference designs have helped transform the learning environments at Gilberthorpe School.

Years of wear and tear and the effects of the Canterbury earthquakes had left the old Canterbury blocks at Gilberthorpe School looking well past their prime.  

“We had two grey-brick, white-paint Canterbury blocks that were a bit of an eyesore,” says principal Andrew Wilkinson. They were fine but not promoting any sort of collaboration or any flexibility.”  

In replacing the old buildings, the school was keen to pursue new designs that reflected their burgeoning collaborative practice of teachers working in pairs. 

Following some work on the design education brief and looking at what was possible within the budget, the decision was made to replace one block with a brand new building and upgrade the second block. Both options were feasible using reference designs – easily repeatable building designs that support teaching and learning and can be readily customised to a school’s site and needs. 

“We've got two very different blocks, but both working really well for us. The teams in them are using them beautifully,” says Andrew. 

The new block 

The layout for Gilberthorpe’s new block is simple and symmetrical with two teaching spaces on each end, although the reference design can be expanded to include up to six teaching spaces. A large maker space runs right through the middle, along with breakout spaces and a kitchen.  

The design allows for a variety of outdoor spaces under a double-sided verandah which can be wrapped around the building, which is great if there is bad weather on one side. The school has enhanced their outside area with a big sandpit.  

The design can be configured as cellular or flexible teaching spaces. Gilberthorpe has taken advantage of the design’s flexible elements, to support the school’s collaborative teaching model.   

They’re lovely light colourful spaces. All the teachers there love it. I don’t think there’s anyone here who would want to go back to having their own single cell class.  

“It’s huge for our collaboration. The best thing about this block for me is that it's incredibly open. The openness of the design enables teachers to be flexible in how they use the space.   

Andrew says it works for a variety of different learning activities, from waiata and play-based learning in the morning, involving the whole hub, to literacy and numeracy groups across the classes.   

We did trial having up to five classes in there, but it was a bit much. We’ve settled on teachers working in pairs, which works really in this layout. The two teachers plan and deliver everything together.  

The school is so committed to its collaborative model, it has declined the addition of any partitioning or glass doors. Are we collaborating or not? If we were to go and put glass doors throughout I think that would encourage us to go back to single cell teaching again.  

Reference designs

Refurbished block 

The refurbished Canterbury block – also a reference design model  has a different look and feel to its new counterpart. “To be honest the refurb block is probably more impressive than the new one, given that we weren’t starting from scratch,” says Andrew.  

While the outside of the building hasn’t changed, Andrew says there was an enormous amount of work to transform that space. The space was opened right up with the walls between classes all removed. The old cloak bays are now breakout spaces and teacher resource rooms.  

It uses a coloured zone system, with the colour of the ceiling above identifying each zone.    

“All of our classes spend time in the home base, but when they’re teaching literacy, numeracy, they are using all four classes. So the yellow zone may come down to the Green Zone for reading, for example.   

“It’s open and comfortable enough that the students can move around as they need to, says Andrew.  

The school has supported the new buildings with furniture to suit their needs: high tables, low tables, jellybean whiteboard tables, desks.  

Reference designs

Lessons learned 

Andrew says they are really pleased with both buildings, however there are a few things he has learned from the process.  

“You need to be able to heat and cool buildings effectively in New Zealand,” says Andrew. Canterbury has its own challenges on hot, windy days, so the school is installing a centralised ducted air-conditioning system, which will heat and cool the space.  

Bag storage is another consideration. “We’ve got 80-100 kids in the building and the bag cubbies were originally inside, but that didn’t work, so we’ve moved them on the outside.  

And factoring in enough storage for teachers is also important, says Andrew. 

But overall, it’s been a good process with a good outcome for Gilberthorpe School. Andrew says the school community is happy with the new spaces.  

“We had four new kids start this Monday and we showed their families around the new spaces while they were in action - they were really impressed. 

Principal Andrew Wilkinson and students are enjoying the new and improved learning spaces at Gilberthorpe School.

Principal Andrew Wilkinson and students are enjoying the new and improved learning spaces at Gilberthorpe School.

What are reference designs? 

References designs are easily repeatable school designs proven to deliver good learning outcomes, and can be readily customised to school sites and needs.  

They can be used for upgrades, roll-growth additions, replacement classrooms in school redevelopments, or newly planned schools. 

New catalogue 

A new catalogue of reference designs(external link) was released in March this year to share popular, successful and easily customised designs that can be tailored to a school’s needs.  

The catalogue showcases a range of school designs that have worked for other school property projects. For some schools, these reference designs will be the right starting point, but they aren’t a requirement.  

The first edition of the catalogue mostly focuses on reference designs for primary schools. A second edition featuring more specialised designs needed in secondary schools and kura, including science blocks, gyms, admin buildings and more, is in the works. 


Upgrading existing blocks is the Ministry of Education’s first choice for any school property projects – it’s sustainable and cost effective. 

The reference design catalogue includes options for upgrading two-storey Nelson blocks and single-storey Canterbury blocks which typically have strong foundations, are weathertight and can be retrofitted to innovative learning environments.  

The Ministry of Education will be hosting its next Infrastructure Sector Forum online on 9 April, from 10am–12pm. See here(external link) for more details.


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:15 am, 19 March 2021

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