In Education, Opinion

Director and Head of Education, Michelle Davies sets out her views on the opportunity for modular construction to assist in delivering school places.

“Modular construction has to be an essential in the education sector if it is to meet the impending requirement for school places, yet preconceptions around quality, and lack of knowledge of the benefits is preventing it from becoming a core part of the school building programme.

By 2021, the school age population in England is set to grow by 5.5%, which is creating an increase in demand for school placements.  To cope with this demand, more than 640 new schools will need to be built by 2022.

Modular design and construction, utilising high quality, specialist factory-built units that are connected on site, can assist in meeting this requirement for educational facilities, both in terms of new schools and the expansion of existing sites, in this very short timescale.

Although the Department for Education is pushing modular methods out through its new MMC1 Framework, there are a number of key drivers in addition to meeting the 2022 timeframe, which include cost, quality, programme and continuous improvement.

While these are all relevant in any sector, they are particularly pertinent for schools. There are, however, many other benefits to modular buildings that should be considered by the sector.

By choosing to build modular, schools will benefit from a fast, cost-effective, and efficient process with environmentally friendly materials and durability built in.

From a practical perspective when considering the education of pupils, for those schools requiring new or replacement facilities on an existing school location, the simple fact is that children and building sites are not a good mix.

Building sites can be dangerous, loud, and disruptive, and therefore modular school buildings make a great alternative to a traditional build in a school setting. The last thing teachers need is the levels of noise expected from a building site when they are encouraging a class full of students to reach their full potential.

Modular moves up to 80% of the construction activity away from the actual site, so schools can continue to run smoothly with minimal impact and disruption.  The reduced build time is also crucial in terms of programme, where occupation is often tied to September or another term-start date.

There are lots of examples of schemes for new schools at the moment, which are going through the planning process, where the school or Academy Trust is already in existence with the first intake of pupils housed in all sorts of temporary accommodation, such as commercial buildings, making time is of the essence.

There is also the reduced environmental impact with modular school buildings, there is less waste on site, and building a modular classroom is much more sustainable than a traditional build. By choosing to build modular, the indoor construction process can take place alongside site and foundations work and there is no need to worry about weather delays.

At DPP we have been involved in delivering planning permission for a significant percentage of schemes through previous DfE Frameworks known as Mod A, B and C and now MMC1.

There have already been 103 projects across the country ranging from whole school replacements through to individual blocks and we’ve done quite a high percentage of those. Our first real experience of modular was obtaining planning permission during 2018 for nine on-site replacement primary schools around the country and they all ran simultaneously.

That was where we really learnt about the advantages of modular, but also the complexities of building on a live school site.

From there we moved onto delivery of replacement blocks at both secondary and primary schools and are now increasingly involved in the delivery of whole new Secondary schools through the Modular Framework, which will form a large part of work for 2021. These projects are across the country and include a high proportion of Special Education Needs (SEN) schools within that workstream.

However, despite the obvious advantage of modular and the increase in schemes using this method, we are finding that few local education authorities are embracing it.

I believe the reason for not embracing modular as a valid solution is simple enough; there is still an image out there of temporary cabin buildings that are freezing cold and flimsy, and there are still those kinds of buildings on school estates all over the country.

The truth is the opposite. There are now more options than ever when it comes to design and quality, as well as branding and bespoke features.

It’s just that there is just not enough awareness of what can be achieved with modular buildings.   There are so many significant advantages, as I’ve highlighted, the most obvious being cost as these buildings are a much more cost-effective solution in the long run.

They are also a good environmental choice; there is less waste on site as they are constructed elsewhere, they increasingly use recyclable products and have a much longer life cycle. In addition, modular school buildings have much greater energy-efficiency because they are made up of modules placed side by side, which have a double wall thickness, and this also means greater sound insulation, something that is crucial for a learning environment.

If Academy Trusts and local authorities can embrace the benefits of modular, then a great step can be made towards meeting the school places required across the country.”

Image Credit: Elliott Group

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