Ultimo Public School

DesignInc Sydney - Ultimo Public School

Nestled on an inner-city site between multi-storey apartment buildings, warehouses, an arterial road and parklands, the new Ultimo Public School cleverly achieves both sanctuary and connection.

From the outset, the design team applied a deep understanding of emerging education pedagogies—such as student-based learning—to the design process. Dissolving the classroom/playground divide, flexible learning spaces expand into playgrounds, verandahs and walkways. Architecture, landscape and interior design work together to create a healthy, adaptable and enchanting learning environment to support the next generation of students.

Design Excellence

In 2016 DesignInc partnered with Lacoste+Stevenson and BMC2 to win an international Design Excellence competition run by the NSW Department of Education. The brief was for a new school on the existing Ultimo Public School site, expanding the student capacity from 285 to 800 and introducing new community, childcare and library facilities. Our winning design presents a new educational model for an inner-Sydney primary school.


  • 2022 Commendation, Educational Architecture, National Architecture Awards, Australian Institute of Architects
  • 2022 Winner, William E Kemp Award for Educational Architecture, Australian Institute of Architects (NSW)
  • 2022 Overall Winner, Learning Environments Australasia
  • 2022 Winner, New Construction / Entire New Education Facility, Learning Environments Australasia
  • 2022 Shortlisted, Social & Community Infrastructure Category, UDIA NSW Crown Group Awards for Excellence
  • 2015 Winner, International Design Competition, Schools Infrastructure NSW
Gadigal Country
Ultimo, New South Wales
Schools Infrastructure
Lacoste+Stevenson, BMC2
Project Contact
Cameron Martin
Brett Boardman
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Civic connections

One of the design challenges was responding to the varied uses adjacent to the school: apartments, warehouses, a busy road and a park. The terraced layout allows the design to fit with the scale and building typologies of neighbours on all sides. An open and modest scale along Jones Street reinforces the character of the street, the robust façade on Quarry Street responds to the brick warehouse building to the north and the Wattle Street façade screens heavy traffic.

Learning to learn

Flexible learning spaces and strong connections between indoor and outdoor support a range of education styles, encouraging children and teachers to explore diverse ways of interacting. Ultimo Public School seamlessly blends imagination and nature to enrich the students’ learning journey.

A layered landscape

In this dense urban setting, landscape is key to providing sanctuary and respite. A large proportion of the students live in surrounding apartments with very limited access to natural environments and play spaces. Teaching staff had observed a below average gross motor skill development in the students, so a key part of the brief was to bring the natural environment into the school.

DesignInc Sydney - Ultimo Public School
DesignInc Sydney - Ultimo Public School

A fourth playground—the COLA—on the uppermost level, provides all weather covered outdoor play and learning opportunities. Mesh screens with vines growing through them allow solar access, ventilation and views over the adjacent street, while also offering privacy and protection.

A ‘DNA linking chain’ pathway connects all four levels, operating as running track with distance markers and exercise station. It also connects outdoor learning and breakout spaces.

DesignInc Sydney - Ultimo Public School

Taking advantage of the steep slope, the school is arranged as a series of terraces. To maximise useable space, all terraces and rooftops become gardens or play spaces—vegetation, equipment, environmental graphics, nature play and water features combine to enhance sensory experiences and promote engagement, relaxation and activity for the school community.

Three distinct landscaped playgrounds terrace down the centre of the site, each featuring vegetation specific to the microclimatic conditions. Abundant and layered plantings, visual connection between the three terraces and generous openings to the sky allow students a connection to nature in this highly urbanised area of the city.

Courtyards feature natural rock outcrops, rainforest landscaped intimate courts, a three-level library and learning common that serves as an acoustic buffer to the arterial roadway of Wattle Street and a grand community-oriented COLA on the upper level. The double storey hall has a large plate glass outlook to the mature trees and parklands of Wentworth Park. Stairways and pathways encourage incidental social interaction, and the whole school can be easily surveyed and supervised through clear lines of sight, which promotes a feeling of safety and security.

A fresh, creative and playful architectural expression. This scheme raises amenity standards for early learning centres in Australia.

Design Excellence Competition Jury

Community facilities

Connecting with community is an important part of the school vision. Key facilities—such as the COLA, school hall, basketball court, middle courtyard and adjacent learning spaces—can be booked outside school hours, ensuring the school is a vibrant new space for the whole community.


Environmentally sustainable features include reused photovoltaic cells and a displacement ventilation system, where outside air is supplied below the library floor level and is relieved at high level for chimney-effect ventilation through the three-storey library and general learning spaces. Some sustainability features have become learning opportunities for kids, such as digital displays that display energy consumption, solar power generation, water harvesting and the like.

Other sustainability initiatives include:

Ngoc Tran - DesignInc Sydney

Ngoc Tran

Senior Designer, Sydney

Helen Chan

Helen Chan

Senior Designer, Sydney