Standardisation – A Way Forward for School Buildings?

Andrew Covell
As Henry Ford famously said, “You can have any colour you like as long as it is black”. With the recent announcement of the first 200 schools in the Priority Schools Building programme (PSBP), all the signs are that the Government sees standardisation as one of the key ways of reducing the cost of schools procured through PSBP, compared with its predecessor Building Schools for the Future (BSF).

The James Review which reported in April 2011 was quite firm on this point and recommended that: "New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs. This will allow for continuous learning to improve quality and reduce cost. Currently the bulk of new schools are designed from scratch with significant negative consequences on time, cost and quality."

Of course, standardisation is nothing new, plenty of other clients have already embraced it and delivered real savings. For companies in the retail and budget hotel markets it is not just the benefits they see in reducing their capital costs, by using standard layouts with a standard set of components, but the faster construction times that result also deliver real benefits in terms of being able to open their stores and hotels faster than more conventional projects. Another key feature of this process is that lessons learnt on one project are continuously fed into the development of future projects. Concepts that are found to work become standard on future projects, whilst those that don’t are re-thought until they do work. For companies such as these standard layouts work very well, not least because of the familiarity they bring to their customers, but would this work for schools that are striving to be different and stand out from their neighbours?

Well this all depends on what standardisation means for schools. Contrary to what many have thought, the James Review does not appear to be calling for the development of a standard design that is then rolled out across the country as a series of identi-kit buildings. It is, however, calling for the development of standard drawings and specifications to reduce the need to design from scratch each and every time a school is commissioned. Faithful+Gould is already investing in this philosophy. We have teamed up with Scape and Derbyshire County Council to develop the Connect classroom extension model.

This concept will deliver an extension 30% cheaper and 6 months faster than conventional construction, whilst being as robust and flexible as any conventional project.

The concept uses a standard classroom model with built-in toilets, storage and cloakroom space, which can be combined in units of 2, 3, 4 or 6. Whilst we do not pretend that this will be the answer for every single project, we do believe it gives a glimpse of what is possible with standardisation.

It is possible once you have standardised designs and specifications to then concentrate on selecting those products that best meet the identified need. This in turn creates buying power to bring down the product costs by offering suppliers the kind of volume guarantees that enable them to reduce their prices. In addition by integrating the supply chain into the ongoing evaluation of new buildings and products it is possible to adapt and develop these products to overcome any issues discovered and to make best use of things that do work. Of course, this approach also helps to reduce lead times for products to the obvious benefit of the construction programme.

It is also possible to consider the reliability and maintainability of these products and components by tracking their in-use performance and then modifying the specification to remove any issues identified. Faithful+Gould has assisted a major UK retail bank in refocusing its relationship with its construction product suppliers to place a significant emphasis on running and maintenance costs in order to achieve the best possible long term value. When the programme first started there was initial scepticism and a reluctance to release data on factors such as mean time between failure rates etc., however, gradually the suppliers came round as they realised the gains they stood to make if they could demonstrate that their claims were valid and could be delivered.

Taking our cue from the philosophy behind the opening line of this article should we consider the car industry as a possible model? After all you can walk into a showroom and order a new car with your own choice of colour, trim, engine size and extras, yet this very specific car is assembled on a production line alongside hundreds of other similar, but different, cars to a defined quality level for an agreed price and it is delivered comparatively quickly. How can we harness this thinking in the delivery of new schools, how can we create that sense of the unique whilst using a set of standard parts?

These are some of the questions that need to be debated over the next few years. Not all the solutions we come up with as an industry will work and we will all need to be honest when this occurs in order to recognise this and make a change. However, the reality is that if we want to improve the outcomes for our children by delivering world class facilities we need to think differently. The old ways of doing things are unlikely to suit the budgetary restrictions we all now face and so, if we are not prepared to try new things, we will simply end up having to make do with less and this cannot be the right solution.

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