Are aging system builds asset ‘liabilities’?

Thomas Aram
Many UK schools are dealing with potentially risky and antiquated system buildings, now over-due for replacement but still needed as there isn’t the budget to replace them.

System-built schools were fast, effective and cost efficient, when local authorities faced a rapidly increasing population and traditional construction methods couldn’t deliver. Most system-builds are easily recognised by their distinctive 60s pre-fab appearance, and today’s built environment professionals will quite likely have been educated in one—in fact, their own children may now be attending one.

We commonly see Hills Buildings, Vic Hallam, Clasp and Scola amongst other system builds throughout the UK schools’ estates. The most popular variant is CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme), built between 1957 and the 1980s. The light weight steel frame and pre-fabricated sections were mainly used to produce schools, but also appeared as hospitals, universities, fire, ambulance and police stations, and offices.

We have many years' experience supporting the education sector - on a national scale.

HSE have recorded 3,134 CLASP contracts in the UK with 1400 built as schools[1], many of which remain in use today, often operating well beyond their life expectancy and presenting challenging maintenance, statutory compliance and adaption challenges to meet the current education needs. They were usually constructed with asbestos containing materials (ACMs), at a time when this wasn’t a known health issue and are therefore a potential hazard. Ceilings and wall voids are a particular problem, due to the modular system’s unsealed columns. This requires remediation and extra care during renovation works—and we are seeing a lot of renovation works, due to the age of these buildings. Compliance with fire regulations is also complicated, as it’s more challenging to improve the compartmentation in these designs, which were not intended to meet present-day requirements. Old electrical installations and out-dated heating systems add to the risks.

The loss of industry expertise on system-builds is problematic. Local authorities traditionally had a good understanding of these buildings and were accustomed to managing them. This specific in-house understanding is now dwindling, compounded by the frequent lack of built drawings and subsequent alterations information. Academies are especially vulnerable when system-builds form part of their estate, whether they’re a multi-academy Trust (MAT) or a single academy. They may not have the relevant knowledge, expertise and experience within their estates team to effectively manage such buildings, Yet once devolved from local authority control, the MAT estate, together with its liabilities, becomes the responsibility of the board of directors. The board’s obligations include the Health and Safety at Work Act, Control of Asbestos Regulations, maintenance of the estate, stator and regulatory compliance. In extreme circumstances, failure to demonstrably discharge statutory and regulatory obligations could result in personal legal liability and prosecution. Read our article on MAT estates liabilities here. It’s therefore essential to get good advice, as part of strategic estate planning.

SNC-Lavalin’s Faithful+Gould business offers specific expertise in system-builds. Our building surveying team has been working with these buildings for many years and supports clients in planning the best solution to fit the business case—whether that’s maintaining the asset, safe refurbishment or replacement.

Our detailed knowledge of system-builds’ potential health & safety risks enables us to undertake the Principal Designer role in addition to building surveying, cost management and project management services. Our most recent system-build experience is with Derby City Council, Derbyshire County Council and Academy Trusts.

Nationally we have many years’ experience of supporting the education sector. We are experienced in different funding mechanisms and procurement routes, helping MATs, individual academies, local authorities and private schools achieve best value. We have also been involved at policy level as lead advisor to the (former) ESFA in the development of the baseline designs. We are also currently one of four consultants selected to undertake a survey of the full schools’ estate across England, on the ESFA’s Condition Data Collection Programme. As a result, we have an excellent understanding of what a funding bid should look like, what an efficient school estate should look like, which options are available for difficult buildings—and we are equipped to assist schools manage their existing estate and can support them develop for their future needs.





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