Clifton Creek Primary School disappeared inside the flames of the Black Summer fires, joining the 24 million hectares set ablaze during one of the most severe bushfire seasons Australia has ever seen. Ravaged by bushfires – and later, catastrophic flooding – what remained of the small local primary school was barely a skeleton. AOA Christopher Peck (or AOA for short), pioneers of community building and architectural resilience, made it their mission to rebuild the school stronger than before; a message of endurance and spirit to remind the students and residents of Clifton Creek of their own strength in the face of adversity.

Chris Peck and Gordon Lewicki, directors at AOA, were humbled and honoured to be chosen for the symbolic rebuild. “The selection for the lead design consultant was run through a competitive tender process. It was extremely special for us to be announced as the successful submission,” says Peck.

“We had to do it quickly – the school burned down early 2020 during the devastating bushfires. The project to rebuild was announced immediately after by the ministers. We were brought on board and delivered the design  in a short four-month period enabling the contractor to get to site quickly,” says Peck.

Despite the short turnaround – or perhaps as a result of it – the final product was a physical representation of the community’s resilience against disaster after disaster. This new environment spoke for the people of Clifton Creek, with profound architectural choices communicating the key message: stronger than before. The school, now able to accommodate 50 students, sits nestled on a hilltop in a rammed earth design which incorporates elements of the surrounding environment and touches of what came before.

“All that was left of the fires were two mosaic mural sculptures and the school bell,” says Lewicki. “The bell had been rescued by the school, so now it hangs at the rebuild and the two mosaic mural sculptures became centrepieces to the new secret garden. A pizza oven also survived the blaze, which is now a part of the community dedicated building on site.”

The materials used to rebuild were sourced from various local resources. Sand for the rammed earth walls was located down the road in Bairnsdale (Bairnsdale Gold), while hardwood timbers for feature columns were also purchased locally. With a low power supply and a sustainable water system, the school is an almost entirely off the grid.

Peck elaborates: “This unique site, history and brief called for an extremely tailored solution. It had to be a building and landscape response far beyond the standard state school cooky-cutter response. Fortunately we had support from the Department of Education to investigate a rammed earth building that would be an energy conscious response.”

Through this tragedy, the community’s strength was a constant source of inspiration for AOA. The community’s close connection to the land formed the conceptual core of the redesign. The link to Country was explored from form through to medium with the rammed earth design and the proud use of local materials. Local Indigenous peoples are represented. Here, AOA worked with a local Indigenous Co-operative to organise the use of Indigenous artwork embedded into the rammed earth walls.

“There was a community feel behind it all. The area had been devastated by fires and then floods – its fair share of pretty disastrous events. So in rebuilding the primary school it had to signify a community rebuild as well. It needed to show that these tragedies aren’t dragging them down,” Peck says. “To come back stronger than before.”

The layout included two connected classrooms, staff rooms and offices as well as a community hub for the hosting of local events. The interior, however, has more than just AOA’s influences.

As a whole, the school has a muted palettes reminiscent of the Australian landscape. The earthy classroom carpets are offset by white walls which encourage the students to add their own colour. VE Furniture, specialists in educational furniture design, was brought in to furnish the classrooms. It worked in collaboration with the students, who chose pops of colour in the bean bags and furniture throughout.

The classrooms are separated by a large bi-folding door, allowing for varying room configurations, giving teachers the option to unite the small classes as one. VE furniture went above and beyond to accommodate adaptable learning spaces, designing custom and versatile furniture with easy mobility.

The resurrection of Clifton Creek Primary School has been met with delight from the community in its story of return. An innovative example of what an educational environment can be, this rebuild pays homage to the past structure and promises so much more for the students of Clifton and the surrounding towns.

Related: The inspirational role of furniture in the classroom

“When the kids came back on the first day, they were just dropping their bags and running around. The feedback – both verbal and through people’s actions – was quite clear that we’ve been able to achieve what everyone had hoped for,” says Lewicki.

After everything the community had been through, it’s safe to say that it was.

AOA Christopher Peck

Courtesy of the architects

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