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Neil Smith: "We see the relationship between education and community as both an opportunity as well as a challenge"

End of year review: UK Energy Partners

Neil Smith from offsite specialists UK Energy Partners reviews education construction in 2015

Posted by Stephanie Broad | December 16, 2015 | People, policy, politics, money

What has been the most interesting development or project for you this year?

For me, the most interesting development has been volumetric construction. We’ve always recognised the benefit of off-site – it saves time, it saves waste, and it leads to a significantly more accurate build. Our off-site construction methods had traditionally been limited to 2-D, large-format flat-panel floors, walls, and roofs, and it’s hard to incorporate the complex elements of the building in a flat panel, i.e. the mechanical and electrical – so what’s exciting is being able to build 3-D/volumetric. We’re now able to do build using both, and the combination is incredibly potent, for example, if we’re engaged to do a block with toilets and bathrooms, we can build everything, including the plumbing, all in the factory; so we can place the large panels as one, meaning that we can be on and off-site very quickly.Have you seen any new techniques, materials or cost-saving methods, from home or abroad?

We’re always on the lookout for new techniques, materials, and methods. In addition to 3-D/volumetric, our Schoolhaus building at St John’s C of E Primary utilised a new technique; using structural glue laminated timber frame, we created an innovative method for building glazed elevations that we could still execute off-site and install rapidly on-site. We have also been trialling a solid oxide fuel cell MCHP (Micro Combined Heat and Power) which turns natural gas into electricity, and uses the waste heat as the primary heating source. This is a super-exciting innovation and the price point now makes sense.

What challenges exist for building great educational establishments?

Nobody really enjoys having builders on site, so getting a construction project delivered as rapidly as possible with as little disruption as possible is absolutely key to school operations. Access is often a challenge - sometimes the impact and benefit of our large panels can be diluted by a school’s access restrictions for larger vehicles.

We see the relationship between education and community as both an opportunity as well as a challenge, for example, St John’s C of E’s Schoolhaus building is now the school’s library and it’s used as a community space. The facility will be used by all ages, from the local nursery and toddler groups from the school’s community, to residents from the nearby care home.

Sustainability from an energy and environmental perspective is at the heart of what we do, and we have uncompromising views about buildings that are funded by the public purse having anything other than an A+ EPC rating. There’s no excuse for achieving anything less, and if they are designed intelligently, there’s no uplift in cost.

One solution to the issue of funding is to get the right building that can be rapidly deployed, but get someone else to pay for it! Schools can buy or rent our buildings, which can be a lot more attractive to schools than capital expenditure. Plus the revenue generated from our solar panel roofs and dramatically reduced fuel cost savings serves to subsidise the lease costs.

How has the outcome of this year’s general election affected school building activity? 

We’ve seen no real impact in the short term albeit we can see measures underway in terms of policy to accommodate the growth in the school population, combined with a renewed appetite for value for money.  We believe we are well placed to meet the middle and longer-term requirements of the DfE and the EFA.

What is your top tip for schools, colleges and universities to look after their buildings? 

In terms of value engineering, procurement value for money and speed of delivery, we would urge all estates directors to explore what off-site construction can now deliver in terms of high quality permanent buildings.

What does the future look like for construction in education?

We’re very excited about the future. Our product is tailor made for schools and its tailor made for the environmental challenges that we’re facing, and tailor made for the financial challenges that we’re facing too. 

Want more insight into education construction in 2015? Take a look at our roundtable feature.

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