Josiah College – Gold Coast: Australia’s First Autism School

Hamilton Hayes Henderson have been the College Architects for Emmanuel College , Carrara Gold Coast for over 21 years now, & there are only 5 buildings left on campus that we haven’t been involved in the design or redesign of.Over that time Architectural language has evolved from fairly conventional design with strict campus guidelinesto more expressive language bringing the college into the 21st century,with the most recent Building, the Neville Bonner Building presenting a new public face for the campus

So, a high level of mutual trust & respect existed before we began the Josiah journey. Obviously we were very excited when Patrick told us our next project was in fact a whole new school, although I wasn’t expecting his next sentence to be: “It’s an Autism-specific school, and it’s on the site we’ve just purchased next door”

Once the project & the philosophy behind it had been explained, we decided as a design team that before we even put pen to paper we needed to do research, and a lot of it. We wanted to really understand what was involved in specifically designing for Autistic students & make this a benchmark project in that field.

The decision was made to build in conventional construction, rather than modular. During the course of design development, it was also decided to increase the Stage 1 scope to include a second 2 classroom pod and the College Administration, so that upon opening it presented as a complete College, rather than a work in progress.One of the drivers for that decision , given the general hyper-sensitivity of the students, was the need to commence future construction work immediately adjacent to the initial 2 classroom pod if we built only one.

The site when acquired was a heavily wooded knoll. In response to this, and to our research the initial building concepts presented the idea of buildings clad in timber-look battens to create a cubby house/play fort feel, with rooflines reflecting the hinterland hills in the background. When we presented this concept to the client we found that they are fans of the Forest School Movement, so the concept was welcomed with open arms.

The classrooms are in pods, each pod having its own entrance for clarity of wayfinding. Each pod contains 2 classrooms + toilet facilities, store and a consulting room for visiting specialists such as physios, speech pathologists, play or music therapists, etc , The pods also have a large North facing verandah /play space with soft fall flooring, and in the case of Pod 1 this area connects to an open belvedere structure at the corner of the site. This structure provides a visually prominent signage location for the College, and educationally it allows the students to interact with the wider world as and when they see fit. A lot of thought, care (and architectural detailing) went into the design of these pods, and of the classrooms in particular. As noted earlier, acoustics are a major consideration & are applied in 2 layers – an external layer for sound isolation & in an inner layer for control of noise within the rooms. This fairly expensive treatment is not self- evident, but is critical to successful operation of the College

The classrooms open to a North facing verandah but to minimize distraction and glare the glazing to that verandah is mostly frosted, with strips of clear glass allowing filtered views.The frosting has been applied as film, so that its extent can be increased, or decreased, depending on the needs and responses of particular student groups as they become evident.The classrooms have a raking ceiling in the centre,looking up to a South facing skylight which provides natural light & sky views without glare. The edges of the rooms are lower, both to accommodate services and to provide a sense of containment and security to those who need it.

A “dark” area is provided as a retreat, available for use by the students as and when needed.Interestingly, one of the research findings was that the availability of such a retreat space within a room actually reduced its use, presumably because the students know it’s there if needed. Services were also carefully considered with high-volume low-flow air conditioning to get rid of the usual hiss, which neurotypical brains simply filter out as background noise but which to those on the spectrum can be the aural equivalent of a crashing waterfall. LED lighting was also carefully considered, with multiple circuits allowing flexibility in extent of lighting, and dimming and temperature control enabling customization of both the intensity and warmth of the lighting, i.e. a more flexible version of the old selection of warm, cool or natural fluorescent tubes. Much the same principles were applied to the Administration Building, with student/parent spaces subject to the same rigorous design constraints but back-of- house spaces such as Staff Room designed for neurotypical usage in order to contain cost. The staff areas provide casual surveillance of the COLA, filtered thru a batten screen.

The overall Master Plan is currently at DA finalization stage, allowing for a school size up to a maximum 80 students. That size is a conscious decision, reflecting the fact that Josiah is specifically designed for students at the higher end of the Spectrum, who are unsuited to mainstream schooling. Our intent, and that of the College, is that Josiah College will become a benchmark in Autism-specific education design, with the learnings on this project being transferred into other new Autism-specific schools for which there is, we all know, a large unmet demand Australia wide.

Share This Post

You may also be interested in...

HHH are looking for experienced project leaders

We are looking for proven ability in technical design development across multiple sectors, such as retail, commercial, hospitality or multi-residential, from concept to construction phase. You will be working within a great studio environment and a small, friendly team. We are based in one of the Gold Coast’s creative hubs near Miami beach.

Flexible work arrangements are offered to suit each individual along with salary to match experience.

Please send your CV to