Offsite construction for schools

Dan Blake
Schools can reduce construction disruption with high-quality, cost-effective classrooms manufactured offsite—to the highest specification.

School buildings are critically important. The physical and social environment in which schoolchildren and staff spend a high proportion of every weekday has profound effects on their physical, emotional and mental health as well as affecting their attainment[1].

For most schools, however, creating new spaces is not a straightforward task: there will be many practical and financial constraints to consider. As more schools move away from local authority control, they face a new level of decision-making and statutory responsibility for their estate.

The major headaches for headteachers and governors include serious disruption such as, noise, dust, changes to access, security, caused by a traditional construction project and managing the Health and Safety of the staff and children during the construction period. There are already complex challenges around operating school sites securely and cost-effectively, to deliver a safe and suitable environment for pupils, staff, and community users.

Offsite methods of construction are not always given proper consideration in the education sector, but they can bring significant benefits by reducing the risks of onsite construction.

The Government’s commitment to modular buildings is demonstrated through the newly-launched £1.2bn Modular Buildings Solutions framework.  The framework offers an alternative to traditionally built accommodation and public sector customers will be able to buy or lease modular buildings designed and fabricated to their specification. [2]

The main benefits of these modern methods for the education sector can be summarised as:

  • Installation during term-time - programme time savings.
  • Less disruption on site—up to 90% fewer vehicle movements, less noise and dust.
  • Consistent quality.
  • Sustainability—life cycle analysis demonstrates 40% reduction on overall environmental impact.
  • Post-handover defects reduction.

Given the benefits, why would a school not consider investigate the offsite method? It’s often a matter of perception—offsite construction has negative associations with the variants of past. Today’s teachers, governors and parents may look back to their own schooldays, and recall memories of temporary classroom accommodation that had long outlived its design life.

Today’s modular buildings are very different and they’re not temporary. Permanent offsite construction can be designed and manufactured to the highest specification. The untrained eye would typically have difficulty in spotting many of the newer offsite constructions. Bespoke buildings are possible, although there are many standard designs available.

Are there any downsides? Flexibility can be a concern with schools understandably keen to future-proof their facilities as much as possible, ready to meet any new ways of teaching and learning. However, careful planning and design can allow for future retrofitting. Longevity is another common area of concern. However, as long as cyclical replacements and maintenance takes place as per the manufacturer’s guidelines, the lifespan of these buildings are no shorter than those constructed onsite.

We find that costs are usually similar to traditional methods at present. The benefits tend to be more focused on faster siteworks and less disruption. However, as offsite methods become increasingly more common in the sector, it will be interesting to see what happens cost-wise.  A cost comparison/options appraisal comparing traditional and offsite construction can be a useful starting point and is one of the areas where SNC-Lavalin’s Faithful+Gould business support clients.

We recommend beginning the investigation and decision-making process as early as possible. The pre-contract element of an offsite construction project will be longer than traditional—and the site-based element will be considerably shorter. Our team advises many schools on how to proceed, with guidance including but not limited to design, project management, cost management and health and safety.

These services form part of our extensive experience in the education sector, extending through nursery, primary and secondary schools, academies and free schools, as well as colleges and universities across the UK.

 

[1] 2014, The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment, Public Health England, Crown copyright.

[2] https://www.pbctoday.co.uk/news/modular-construction-news/ccs-modular-buildings-framework/56801/

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