Constructing a solution to the problem of space

Constructing a solution to the problem of space

More and more schools are turning to modular build solutions as a result of two unmanageable and unrelenting increases – a rise in pupil place demand and a rise in building cost. Education Business looks at both increases and how modular buildings form part of the solution.

Annual figures from the Department for Education have revealed that the school population in England increased by 121,000 since last year, meaning that pupil numbers have risen for seven successive years. This translates to roughly 470,000 more pupils in the school system than in 2009.

Moreover, the figures show that the average size of a primary school in the UK has increased by 30 pupils, which, in most schools equates to an extra class. Additionally, due to the closures to pupil referral units and independent schools, the overall number of schools has dropped.

While this poses questions over government plans for providing places, a Department for Education spokeswoman said the government expected to deliver 600,000 more places by 2021. She commented: “Delivering good quality school places is a top priority for this government and the latest figures show that the system continues to work.

“The figures reveal thousands fewer children are being taught in large infant classes. The data also shows that primary school class sizes remain stable at 27.1 pupils.”

But is it feasible with current design projects? Last month, a projection by the Office for National Statistics said that West Midlands schools will need places to accommodate an extra 82,000 pupils by 2039. Earlier in the year, the same region claimed it was in the middle of a ‘teaching recruitment crisis’, leaving the region with a lack of quality teachers, a surplus of students, and an unequal demand and supply scenario.

Stuartfield Primary School, in Peterhead, Aberdeen, is one school contemplating setting a pupil cap. Councillors have backed proposals to have pupil numbers capped, despite concerns it will send the wrong message to families interested in moving to the area. If the local authority’s education committee backs the village’s councillors the school will have its roll limited to 125 pupils. The school was originally built to host 93 pupils, is recorded to have the capacity to teach 118, but, like most schools, is facing expected rises.

Pupil places
It is no secret that the majority of UK schools are struggling with high demand for school places with a lack of additional facilities available in most areas. Speed of delivery is a very important part of the requirements. Given the limited amount of space available in the majority of existing schools, modular buildings provide an instant advantage to those who desperately need a cost effective and bespoke solution to utilise all the space available.

Modular units are thoroughly planned and designed to suit specific user requirements. Buildings are also created off-site in a factory, which enables urgent school buildings to be delivered faster resulting in minimum disruption.

The role of the local authority in running schools has been brought into question this year with the government intention to force academisation upon all schools by 2022. While this has now been backtracked, the role of the local authority in providing schools places remains a strenuous, and often, impossible task.

The local authority has to ensure suitable and appropriate accommodation is provided early enough for schools to set up over a summer holiday and be ready and open for the start of term in summer. Where accuracy in numbers can be achieved and finance is plentiful, the local authority will often want to pursue a permanent solution and deliver a traditional building solution, but, as Graham Olway of West Sussex County Council informed us last year, those days are fast disappearing.

Building costs and programmes
While the reach of the government’s Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) has been vast and funding generous, the reality is that many schools are still under pressure to perform building maintenance, refurbishment and regeneration works on a tight budget in an expensive market. A report by The Guardian from last year discovered that over a third of head teachers believed that their facilities were unfit for purpose, with 60 per cent desiring reparation or improvement works.

Worryingly, the evidence doesn’t stop there – a recent report by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) claims that the government’s school building programme is leading to ‘dangerous, poorly built and wasteful’ schools. The report finds enormous costs, both initial and ongoing, and consequential substandard buildings.

This is leaving many local authorities to finance the necessary works that remain once the government programme finishes. While funding is given by the Department for Education and the Education Funding Agency, a number of local authorities are having to draw on finances elsewhere to bridge the gap. As a result of this, to keep programme cost under control, school decision makers are increasingly becoming favourable to modular solutions.

A modular classroom maintains the functions of a familiar conventional build, but includes lower costs, less building time and minimal disruption. Additionally, on the topic of rising pupil numbers, modular buildings hold the easy possibility of extension and the capability to be easily moved, far more suitable to a changing school site than a traditional construction. Used modular buildings are also growing in popularity, typically costing 50 per cent less that new manufacturers.

On top of this, modular buildings can be manufactured and installed quicker than traditional structures, with less restrictive planning regulations, and a growing capability to match energy efficiency targets.

Typically, the end product often achieves an Energy Performance Asset rating (EPA) of B, as standard, although an ‘A’ rating would easily be gained if sustainable add-ons are incorporated. This is most commonly seen through the inclusion of solar panels.

The modular industry is fully aware of the difficulty in filling ‘space’ on many schools where improvements are required - what fits, where it fits and how it fits is critical. If there is a requirement to create a new building, decide early, embrace with the designs of modular building solution – do not design a fait accompli.

Engage with the Modular Portable Building Association as their advice is free. Engage with a modular builder, this will enable the architect to at an early stage to see how best to manufacture the building being designed, how to get the best out of construction which should create a cheaper and faster solution that suits everyone.

Most modular builders are happy to act as the principle contractor, so when developing a new scheme where the bulk value is modular, go direct. The education sector can get all of their requirements met; there is no need for the process to be complicated.