Modular Buildings:the Right Fit For School Expansion

Marcus Sutcliffe, managing director of Elite Systems, discusses how modular construction can meet the need for school expansion
 
Britain is currently experiencing a distinct shortage of school places, and headteachers and local authorities around the country are looking for ways to accommodate additional intake – without breaking the bank.
 
School expansion projects are restricted not only by incredibly tight budget constraints, but also by the need to create additional classrooms and spaces without allowing construction to disrupt the day-to-day life of school staff, students, and parents.
 
Such is the pressure to expand, some schools have had to divert money away from essential repairs in order to create temporary classrooms, but this is not a sustainable way for schools to grow.
 
A speedy, solid solution
 
Schools are turning to off-site construction for a cost-effective answer to the expansion conundrum, and one that offers speed as well as flexibility. The success of the schools that have pioneered this approach in recent years has led to rapidly increasing demand for modular school buildings all over the country.
 
Unlike traditional build, off-site construction does not require a lengthy period on the construction site.  In fact, as much as 80 per cent of the work can be done in a factory, which is particularly useful for schools where months of disruption would be a big problem.
 
Marcus Sutcliffe, managing director at bespoke modular building specialists Elite Systems, explained: "Many schools don't know what their intake for the new school year will be until March or April of the same year. That leaves as little as four months for headteachers to assess the school's requirements in terms of space and formulate a plan for any new classrooms, communal areas or other facilities.
 
"Fortunately, the foundations for modular classrooms can usually be constructed within a week, while the rooms themselves are manufactured away from the site in a controlled environment. The installation of the classrooms and finishing of the work then usually takes an additional week or two, and the total project time of most modular classroom installations is often no more than three to six weeks."
 
Following an initial discussion, Elite can generate plans and a quotation within a week, which puts the customer in an excellent position going into the planning process.

This is where delays may occur: securing planning permission and building regulations approval can take anything from six weeks to three months depending on the local authority, so taking advantage of an experienced team which is well-versed in the process is worthwhile. Elite’s experience means the company is able to turn around the planning application within two weeks, keeping delays to a minimum.

The rest of the process is simple: the groundworks run alongside the factory build, so within four to six weeks the structure will be ready to install. As the time on site should take just a couple of weeks, the whole process takes no more than three or four months.
 
No access? No problem
 
Elite Systems has plenty of experience of finding solutions to the challenges of restricted spaces. When Harris Academy in South Norwood wanted to add six extra classrooms to the school, the only suitable location was in an enclosed courtyard.  With limited space, access challenges and a tight timeframe, traditional construction would have created more problems than it solved.
 
Working closely with the project manager, Elite constructed a permanent two-storey building to accommodate 180 additional pupils. The team was responsible for laying the foundations and then lifting the building over a wall and into the courtyard via cranes positioned in the playground next door. In total, the company spent just six weeks on-site, meaning work was completed in the summer holidays with no disruption to students or staff.
 
One size doesn’t fit all
 
A common misconception is that modular buildings are only available in standard sizes, making them unsuitable for sites where the space and layout requires a more bespoke solution. While it’s possible to buy ‘off the shelf’, bespoke options allow schools to tailor the design to fit their requirements.
 
Elite’s designers work with customers to ensure that the structure is designed and built to their exact specification. That means that even where space and access are restricted, the possibilities are endless.  Buildings can be as large or small as the space permits, and the use of building information modelling (BIM) means that the design can be precisely calculated and adjusted ahead of the manufacturing process. 
 
Elite offers a broad range of cladding and roofing options, so the finished unit will fit seamlessly with any existing buildings.  For example, at Harris Academy, the use of timber cladding meant that the new building blended with the character of the school.
 
Safety first
 
The speed and convenience of modular classroom construction means that most expansion projects can be comfortably completed within the school holidays. However, when this isn't possible it is vital that modular classroom installations can take place without jeopardising the safety and wellbeing of students or staff.
 
Marcus said: "While modular classroom construction lends itself to the tight timescales of school holidays, we have also completed a number of major construction projects at schools during term time.
 
"From a practical perspective, this requires a careful fencing off of the working area, clear signage and rigorous safety checks. However, the key to our success in the delivery of term-time construction projects is the way our team communicates with school staff.
 
"At every school project we work on, we present a thorough plan of work that informs staff of what we will be doing at every stage of the process, and we hold regular meetings with school leadership teams throughout the duration of the work."
 
Many school expansion projects are driven by a simple shortage of space, as was the case at Blenheim Primary School in Southend, where Elite installed a new 300 square metre quad classroom complex with toilets and groundworks. The school urgently needed space for an extra 100 pupils, and the Elite team installed foundations, drainage, access and a 10-bay modular building.
 
Marcus added: "We schedule our work in such a way that reduces the likelihood of major works taking place while students are in lessons, instead utilising the hours of the day before and after school starts to complete any potentially noisy or disruptive tasks."
 
Providing for everyone
 
Modular construction is also playing an important role in the provision of facilities for students and staff with special needs, enabling schools to develop accessible spaces for disabled people without the disruption of on-site construction.
 
As the capability to deliver high quality classrooms and school buildings quickly and cost effectively improves at firms across the country, it is expected that many more schools will take advantage of the benefits of modular construction and save themselves the headache of overcrowding.
 
CASE STUDY: EDITH BORTHWICK SCHOOL
 
Edith Borthwick School in Braintree, Essex, caters for children with severe and complex learning difficulties, and accommodates 220 pupils aged three to 19. As class sizes grew, the school needed a quick solution to its need for more accommodation. 
 
Elite Systems provided a turnkey off-site construction solution including design, manufacture and installation of 190 sq m of classroom space, with a sizeable cold-pour rubber crumb play area, mains services and security fencing. 
 
The modular building comprised an entrance lobby with coat and shoe storage, two classrooms, two toilets plus an accessible wet room and WC, two meeting rooms and four stores. 
 
The design specified cedar larch cladding on the external walls, combining aesthetics with sustainability and durability, while anthracite aluminium windows and doors were selected to co-ordinate with the existing building.
 
Elite’s off-site construction methods meant that the time on site was reduced to just three weeks, including connecting all utilities, installing fire and intruder alarms and the provision of the soft play area.  As most work was completed in Elite’s 17,00 sq ft factory in West Yorkshire, disruption on-site was minimal and the health and safety concerns were greatly reduced.
 
The fully insulated building, manufactured from sustainable timber, significantly improved on the elemental U-values required by building regulations.  The use of LED lights and daylight dimming and a highly efficient heat pump system further reduced the modular building’s carbon footprint.
 
CASE STUDY: STUBBINGTON STUDY CENTRE
 
Hampshire County Council commissioned off-site construction specialists Elite Systems to design, manufacture and install new high-specification accommodation blocks to increase the capacity of the Stubbington Study Centre.
 
Following an initial consultation, and working closely with the client at each step, Elite Systems designed a facility that provided bed space for 40 students and 10 teachers.

Meeting the brief for internal sloping ceilings to achieve an elevated feel of space within the accommodation block, we developed a unique custom fabricated cranked roof beam design, to open up the ceiling space without any impact on the buildings performance.

In addition, we also provided a comprehensive renovation and groundworks package; including major excavations to prepare the sandy, coastal environment for safe building. We also installed utilities, including gas and electrical supplies.


Elite delivered the final, fully installed building according to the client’s requirements. The project was delivered on budget and on time – ready for the summer intake of school children.