Off-site construction techniques can be used to meet demand for new schools

  • 15 Aug 2014

Based on current population projections, in just six years the UK will see an increase of 700,000 primary school pupils being forced into an already overstretched state education system.

Despite this concern being high on the political agenda, the fact remains few local authorities are in a financial position to rebuild their existing school stock in preparation for this increase.

Instead, many have taken the decision to assess the potential for expanding existing sites using modern building methods, like off-site construction to develop land which previously wouldn’t have been possible, let alone cost-effective.

Regardless of their personal view on the Government initiative’s success, when Michael Gove decided to scrap Building Schools for the Future (BSF) in 2010, many people were concerned about the future of state funded secondary schools if they didn’t have financial support to develop school stock.

But few realised it would be the primary sector, with its funding in the form of the Primary Capital Programme (PCP) intact, that would be the one struggling to keep up. Despite suggestions to break class size limits and put teachers on shifts, the only true solution is for local authorities to invest in developing their existing stock.

From 2010 to 2013 the contract value for primary schools increased by 91%. Fuelled by the political agenda and necessity, it is believed a sizable chunk of these budgets invested in off-site construction – a trend which is predicted by the industry to continue. 

And it’s easy to understand why off-site, or modular construction, is such an attractive option for local authorities. If a school commits to a traditional build project, they could be facing months of work taking place on site which can cause a huge amount of disruption to both the school and its surrounding area, including residents and traffic flow.
An alternative is to plan work around the school term so the site is only live during the holidays, but while this reduces disruption to the school it doesn’t ease any of the other external issues and it increases the project’s duration considerably.

In some cases planning permission has even been refused because a project was deemed to be too disruptive to the local community.

In comparison, off-site methods, like structurally insulated panels (SIPs), can be completed in a matter of weeks.
Almost all of the preparatory work is undertaken off site, during term time and with little disruption to teachers, pupils and the surrounding area – satisfying planning permission requirements and speeding up project completion.

A further challenge faced by local authorities, which modern construction methods provide a solution to, is accessibility, making land which isn’t suitable for traditional build methods available to increase classroom capacity.

Selecting a plot of land for development isn’t just about picking where a building can fit, it’s also about assessing where realistically a build team can work.

If you think about the access required for traditional construction – you need to account for multiple contractors being on site at any one time often with industrial vehicles and machinery. Sometimes all the crews and equipment are needed on site at the same time, so there has to be sufficient space to ensure they can all work together safely.

With offsite construction the amount of operating space is significantly reduced, installation crews are smaller in size, which means the process is far more efficient and a minimum number of industrial vehicles are needed to support installation. 

Furthermore, off-site methods such as SIPs are lighter than a standard masonry equivalent which means different foundations can be put into place like pad-and-pile providing a faster build and less concrete deliveries to site.

Off-site construction enables local authorities to use every square foot of the land available for development. It’s more efficient – both in terms of time, budget and its environmental impact.

It also offers flexibility that traditional methods can’t compete with and local authorities will need to harness if they are to meet the challenge of providing an additional 700,000 primary school places in the next six years.

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