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The roundtable, L-R: Kevin Jones, Peter Smith, Neil Gething and Andrew Skelcey

End of year review: 2015/16

We talk to four industry experts about the past academic year in education construction

Posted by Stephanie Broad | September 05, 2016 | People, policy, politics, money


Kevin Jones, Director of Business Development, Portakabin Group

Peter Smith, Director, Innova Design Solutions

Neil Gething, Commercial Director, UK Energy Partners

Andrew Skelcey, Key Accounts Manager at Trend Control Systems


What has been your most interesting education project this academic year? 

Kevin Jones: The Riverside Campus for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is a £44 million, three-school campus which will accommodate more than 2,600 pupils. The project is the UK’s largest free school and biggest ever off-site education project. The Portakabin Group is design and build contractor for this 23,000sqm scheme, which will provide much needed places for one of the fastest-growing school-age populations in the UK. The campus will integrate provision for nursery, primary, special needs, secondary, and sixth form. It started on site towards the end of 2015 and the first phase has already been handed over.  

Peter Smith: It’s a close call as we’ve worked on so many uniquely interesting projects, but probably the most interesting has been our installation of a lab for mixed sciences at King Edward VI Camp School for Girls in Birmingham. The project genuinely broke ground and challenged perceptions because it was initially student designed.

The lab exactly meets the needs of pupils and teachers. Featuring a brand new horseshoe seating layout invented by the team of students, the lab works for individual and group tasks and promotes concentration, is teacher centric and collaborative. 

Neil Gething: The Schoolhaus at Chalgrove Primary School has been certified as the UK’s most energy efficient school building; replacing the Schoolhaus at Palatine Primary School which was previously the most energy-efficient UK school building. 

Chalgrove Primary School is a small one-form entry community primary school for around 260 pupils, set in beautiful grounds in Barnet. The school needed to increase their teaching space after their local authority informed them that they would be receiving a bulge Reception class in the next academic year. 

Andrew Skelcey: Cavendish Close Junior School in Derby, a Priority Schools project.

We installed a simple single control system providing an energy efficient holistic solution consisting of Classroom Vent Units with Trend controls built in and a single space temperature/CO2 sensor with fan speed and setpoint adjustments controlling both separate ventilation and heating systems (hence no conflict). 

The main plant room is also controlled with Trend controls, providing a user friendly system, enabling community use calendars if required. This uncomplicated, backward compatible system, will reduce future life-cycle costs also complies with the requirements of the EFA FOS with remote energy monitoring.

Yorkon's Cambourne Village College

Have you seen any new methods or materials used, from home or abroad? 

KJ: We have introduced an ultra-low power natural ventilation heat recovery system, which is being used for a number of school projects that the Portakabin Group is delivering for the EFA. This energy-efficient system suits steel-framed modular construction very well and will increase or decrease air flow rates according to the specific air quality requirements of each classroom. It avoids the need for highly powered mechanical ventilation whilst maintaining air quality to help concentration levels in the curriculum areas.

The development and use of ‘hybrid’ buildings continues to grow. These solutions seamlessly integrate site-based building methods and advanced off-site solutions on a single project. The approach has been used for the Riverside Campus scheme and for the UK’s first University Technical College to be built off site, where the Portakabin Group is also design and build contractor.            

The application of modular and site-based construction by a single contractor delivers buildings which meet client requirements with absolutely no compromise on design. We can achieve large full-height open spaces for multi-purpose halls and lecture theatres using site-based methods, whilst applying advanced off-site solutions to the curriculum areas. The benefits of maximising off-site construction will radically reduce the programme time, improve build quality, achieve much greater certainty of delivery on time and on budget, and minimise any disruption to teaching. 

PS: Countries leading the way in educational interiors include Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. All are forward thinking and innovative in their approach to facilitate learning in the classroom. As an example, two years ago a Swedish architectural practise implemented the very first classroom-less school, creating loosely designed spaces as opposed to fixed classroom bases. The breakdown of physical barriers such as walls and desks has created a free space which allows students to come together to collaborate, imagine and learn. 

NG: We have seen the acceleration in adoption of off-site system build solutions and the attendant new methods and technologies. The most significant change has been in new, improved M&E (mechanical and electrical) with a range of new solutions available which deliver significantly better heating and ventilation at much lower delivery costs. MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery) is the new default standard for off-site builders. 

What are your thoughts on RIBA’s ‘Better Spaces for Learning’ report? 

KJ: We firmly believe that high quality, inspirational spaces for teaching and learning can be achieved by working with enlightened, talented architects who are committed to design excellence and to using flexible, advanced off-site solutions, to the benefit of pupils and teaching staff. 

PS: For us, it is the most comprehensive academic analysis of the school building sector to date. The report doesn’t just draw attention to the current pitfalls in the commissioning process, it provides a framework for the industry, so that with government action, we can work towards a brighter future. 

NG: We believe the report raises several important issues and progresses the debate in a positive direction. We don't wholeheartedly agree with all the points and there could be more substantive details and facts to illustrate how and where new improvements could be made - e.g. new standards for standard classroom spaces - but the output of the report is broadly welcome.

We certainly agree that one standard does not fit all and we wholeheartedly agree with the notion that the environmental conditions and running costs need to be monitored and managed much more effectively. 

AS: It’s a really interesting mix of points – especially the emphasis on lifecycle costs which will be very important to school budgets as the transference to academy status grows. 

How can the government meet demand for school places? 

KJ: This can be achieved by moving more construction off site into a factory environment, combined with outstanding design. We can cut programme times by half for earlier occupation, to help meet the increasing demand for school places whilst creating outstanding environments for teaching and learning. We can also deliver school buildings with much greater certainty of completion on time and on budget and to the highest quality standards. Too many buildings in the UK are still delivered late, over-budget and to sub-standard quality. That has to change. 

PS: Amid growing demand, the practical options available to the Government are either to unlock the budget to build new schools or unlock budget to extend schools and classrooms.

The word ‘budget’ in this scenario might instinctively seem to be the problem – but more specifically I see the problem being the allocation and distribution of budget. 

Rushed projects that don’t include enough consultation fail to meet local needs. This perpetuates the current ‘leaky bucket’ scenario as poorly-executed projects cost more to run due to ongoing maintenance. 

Therefore, as well as behaving decisively and treating each local scenario uniquely – the government needs to consult with industry to ensure it doesn’t waste huge sums on short term solutions when it could potentially spend less on buildings or upgrades that improve efficiency and reduce running costs for the long term. 

NG: From where we sit, the key issue is funding, i.e. changing funding rules to allow independent access to debt to qualifying schools and colleges.  

We are not just referring to current capital budgets because we know that these have largely been protected, but these budgets alone will not achieve the required capacity within the schools’ estate and they certainly will not allow us to meet acceptable standards in terms of current stock which will continue to decline. A Salix Finance type model has proved successful and this should be developed/expanded as part of the finance mix.

AS: By utilising a mix of new build, extensions and refurbishments – some off-site construction looks promising if it will stand the test of time.  

Image courtesy of UK Energy Partners

How is the university learning environment changing?

KJ: With the end of the recruitment cap on undergraduate numbers in England now taking effect, the requirement for upgrading and expanding learning facilities continues to rise to meet the increased demand for higher education. 

An extra 30,000 student places have been made available in England, and the Russell Group has estimated that more than £9 billion is being spent on capital projects by its 24 world-class universities, with a large proportion going towards new high quality learning facilities.   

This presents a significant opportunity for advanced off-site solutions which can help universities rapidly expand facilities and capacity but with very little disruption to students and staff. Landmark buildings can then be developed on constrained university sites with complete design flexibility and a huge range of options for cladding, roofing and glazing to complement existing facilities or to make an award-winning architectural statement. 

PS: At a university level, where students are often studying the field they aim to work in, being ‘workplace ready’ has become even more important – especially in areas such as science and engineering where there is a skills shortage. 

Giving classrooms a more ‘worklike’ yet inspirational feel is critical in attracting the most promising students as well as helping to forge strong links with businesses, who may be seeking locations to train their existing staff. 

As the lines between the classroom and the workplace continue to blur, it’s not just students who must prepare for success, it’s the classrooms around them.

What does the future look like for education construction? 

KJ: The future remains very bright with significant opportunities for our business. Under the Priority School Building Programme, the Government announced a further £2 billion for the second phase of the programme to rebuild or refurbish dilapidated or sub-standard school buildings. There are also programmes to deliver new and refurbished facilities as part of the academy and free school expansion programme. 

The rising demand for school places is against a background of restricted capital budgets which will create challenges as well as opportunities for schools and contractors in the education sector going forward. 

PS: We believe the future is ultimately bright and that constant advances are being made in terms of design and delivery.

However, with projects led by any of a number of bodies such as DfE, local government, academy trust, contractor or the architect – we have a scenario where sheer bureaucracy can create a huge, unnecessary learning curve on every project. 

Amid the confusion, building exteriors, which do nothing to improve educational attainment, receive too much attention and very little money is left for interiors where students spend most of their time. If we manage to reverse this process, we can ensure concentration, behaviour, teaching satisfaction and results all continue to improve for future generations. 

NG: We would blend the key considerations addressed above, to list the priorities as improved access to funding; a greater share of the market for off-site construction, a greater flow of information between schools, the EFA and contractors; as well as a more flexible approach to the design of school buildings. 

Early examples and analysis show that net zero schools are more beneficial to communities, occupants, and the environment. So we see the principles of Net Zero - delivering net zero carbon and net zero running costs - as crucially important to the long term and we should all aim to adopt these principles sooner rather than later.

AS: Looking at the existing building stock and the increasing place requirements – building should continue to 2021 and beyond.

We want to hear your thoughts on the academic year in education construction - send your blogs to the editor.

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