From our extensive experience in the sector, Stride Treglown knows that procuring school buildings amid budgetary constraints and a growing need for pupil places is a constant challenge that drives a never-ending search for cost-saving and efficiency. While this is a particular preoccupation for publicly funded provision, it is true for all schools.
Fortunately, school buildings are amenable to standardisation, which makes the typology a perfect candidate for modern methods of construction (MMC). Classroom sizes, types of facilities needed, and the way schools operate and function are, despite unique site-specific conditions, broadly similar across the country. This is because the National Curriculum and qualifications are standardised and the optimal environment for most children (with obvious exceptions that include SEND, illnesses, and exclusions) sit within a narrow range that can be met adequately by universal performance specifications.
This is great news for School sector clients. While we tend to visualise MMC as stacks of shipping containers used for clients with large pipelines of work across huge portfolios, this stereotype is extremely misleading. MMC encompasses a huge range of techniques and scenarios beyond volumetric offsite systems, and any appraisal should feature a range of suitable MMC options as a matter of professional due diligence.
Drive for efficiency
MMC-led school projects have two defining characteristics. The first is that, done well, they are more efficient and cost-effective than business-as-usual alternatives. In practice this usually means that construction operations are shifted offsite to reap numerous benefits, including, safer factory-based operations, less waste, better quality control, and therefore better energy efficiency. Once onsite, it means less expensive labour and energy usage, and faster builds.
For example, the external shell of Thames Park Secondary School was assembled on site in around 10 weeks. Thames Park is one of the first schools to be delivered via the DfE’s MMC1 Framework, through which we are currently leading the design and delivery of a number of schools across the country.
Why reinvent the wheel?
The second defining characteristic of MMC-led projects is that they take advantage of standardised processes and products. This means we don’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ on every project. Because school buildings all share the same environmental, ergonomic and aesthetic characteristics, key parts of the design can be standardised.
Iterations of model design
Properly validated systems of standardised designs can be easily reused, speeding up the design phase. What’s more, if we conceive of these systems as a kit of interoperable parts that can be configured into an endless variety of forms, this opens the door to mass customisation, which in turn allows design teams to account for site-specific conditions.
For example, in the first two years of the DfE’s MMC1 Framework we have helped to develop four versions of an offsite school system with Bowmer & Kirkland. These include options for Part L+ performance, net zero carbon in operation, Passivhaus, and a hybrid steel frame/panelised solution to suit the needs of different projects, sites, and contexts around the country.
Looked at this way, the essence of MMC is not stacked ‘shipping containers’ but rather a mindset which sees us consistently searching for incremental improvements in efficiency, achieving faster design and construction phases, and refusing to reinvent the wheel for every project. Far from only being relevant to clients with large estates, this approach is appropriate for smaller clients with projects at many different scales – even for one-off, contextually sensitive buildings.
Retaining local character
Our net zero carbon design for the Sky Academy in a sensitive planning context is a case in point. Although it will be built using a volumetric system, it has a strong, bespoke, jewel-like presence that suits its position at the heart of an eco-village. Rooted in its landscape with vernacular, locally-sourced stone and timber cladding, it is about as far away from the negative MMC stereotype as it is possible to get.
Getting it right requires competence that is still developing across the industry. System designs must account for manufacturing efficiency and ease of assembly as well as end-user requirements. Balancing these needs optimally takes considerable knowledge, skill and collaboration across the design team, and changes project phasing – facts that can trip up clients used to more traditional processes.
Although manufacturing assemblies offsite has extraordinary potential to minimise risks compared to the traditional build process, it does not eliminate them altogether. For example, the assemblies still need to be transported to site, safely and on time. The site needs to have been accurately set out to accept the deliveries. Components and their connections must work first time and preserve all the eventual building’s strategies for structural stability, fire, heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, and access, and should require only minimal adjustment on site.
From our long, cross-sectoral experience with MMC, we know that success on site depends critically on success in the design phase. Designs must be fully detailed, verified, and then frozen earlier than on traditional builds to allow for manufacture and lead times. Information must be fully coordinated and carefully marshalled using ISO standard BIM protocols. Before then, designers must have had the opportunity to collaborate closely with the manufacturers and assemblers to avoid costly redesign, which, in turn, requires suitable contractual arrangements.
Choosing the right MMC for the project
The benefits of MMC in school procurement are open to all kinds of clients and projects, even bespoke, one-off ones. However, realising these benefits requires an enlightened mindset that is prepared to weigh the risks fairly and impartially against those of the more familiar traditional procurement routes, and to embrace innovative ways of working.
Modern methods of construction are not always appropriate but where they are, it makes sense to take advantage of them. The education team at Stride Treglown stands ready to advise and deliver.
We were thrilled to see Thames Park Secondary School win ‘Best Use of Hybrid Technology’ at the 2022 Offsite Awards.