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Modular buildings can help save our schools

Richard Hyams from architects astudio discusses how modular buildings offer an affordable alternative to traditionally built classrooms…

For many of us, the idea of a modular school building will rouse memories of dank cabins lacking heating and running water, shunted onto school sites to meet intense demand for school places or as quick fixes during the construction of more permanent extensions.

Modular has come a long way since then, though, and such an image is a far cry from the reality of what modular buildings can do for our schools.

The UK is in the midst of the worst school place shortage in decades, with recent research from Scape Group estimating that 435,646 additional pupils will be joining the UK secondary school system by 2020. That equates to 14,522 secondary school classrooms – or over 400 new schools.

Meanwhile, educators have consistently been hit by budget cuts and increasingly dwindling resources. The £140m for ‘little extras’ promised in this year’s budget will do little to change that, being more useful for new highlighters or blackboards than the construction of additional space. Modular buildings are helping schools to expand: Kingston Academy school

It’s clear that schools desperately need more room to cater for their rapidly-growing student bodies. But with such limited funding, traditional methods of construction – which can be slow and expensive – are proving unfeasible.

With the need for more space becoming increasingly urgent, schools are beginning to understand the possibilities of modular and the transformative impact it could have.

Critically, modular buildings are cost-effective, flexible and quick to complete. They can be used as temporary structures or permanent places. They are also energy-efficient, multi-functional and reusable.

One of the most significant benefits of modular school buildings is the speed at which they can be constructed.  As major components are developed off-site, they can be assembled in as little as three weeks.

This enables desperately needed school buildings to be completed faster, with minimal disruption to school life – often building works can take place entirely during school holidays, meaning schools can remain fully operational during term time.

Minimising waste when constructing modular buildings

Factory-based, machinated construction also means that the buildings conform to strict specifications, and reduces the potential for defects during the build. In turn, this minimises wastage of materials, and can help schools to meet sustainability regulations by making use of recyclable materials and reducing Co2 emissions.

Modular builds are also well-placed to make the best use of a school’s available space. Imaginative construction on school grounds, rather than simply extending existing buildings, can help schools maximize their available land.

The versatility of ‘modules’ means they can be used either as temporary or permanent structures, and semi-permanent modular buildings are able to be altered, adapted as school demand changes. If carefully constructed, buildings can be removed and reused elsewhere – for example, to create specialist classrooms or special educational needs facilities.

The flexible nature of modular builds means that they can perform as multi-functional spaces, seamlessly added on to existing facilities such as libraries, for school exhibitions or performances, or as additional space for extra-curricular activities. Creating multi-functional buildings means their purpose can change in line with a school’s needs at little or no cost, offering sustainability and usability well into the future.

We have put these approaches into practice at astudio, where the use of modular manufacturing has enabled some of our projects to be versatile and flexible, often constructed in operation around working buildings and integrating the old and the new. The work we are undertaking in housing is so easily replicable in school design.  It is more a mindset to design in a more rigorous way enabling the use of offsite technologies. This is true Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA). Modular buildings are helping schools to expand: Kingston Academy school

The Kingston Academy, for example, saw the creation of a number of new spaces which allowed the school to develop, enabling it to become a central part of its local community. Whilst we used a number of offsite manufactured elements it could have quite easily been taken further through the project.

There is too often a view that modular is temporary and second rate – we are proving this not to be the case as this is far removed from the reality of these modern, high spec spaces.

With school budgets declining and pupil numbers growing, flexible, sustainable, cost-efficient modular buildings could be what our schools need not just to survive, but to flourish.

For more information on astudio's modular buildings, see the website here.