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How to deliver quality schools on limited budgets

Despite funding cuts and tight budgets, Chris Fadoju, Partner at Pellings, explains how schools can still improve their buildings

Posted by Lucinda Reid | February 15, 2018 | Bricks & mortar

There is a general acceptance that schools across the UK are faced with major overcrowding and that many thousands of children fail to secure a place in their first-choice school.

At the same time budgets for schools continue to be severely constrained. For many pupils and schools, funding will fall in real terms between now and 2020, which comes on top of a £2.7bn cut.

With this scenario it looks like there is a perfect storm of school overcrowding and a lack of funds to be able to do anything about it. So, is there no solution?

Intelligent solutions within funding constraints 

As a building surveyor with 15 years’ experience of delivering public sector projects including many new schools and school expansions, I would argue that it is down to us professionals to use our knowledge and expertise to come up with intelligent solutions within the current funding constraints.

The starting point for any planned expansion is to examine whether the existing accommodation complies with BB103 and if there really is a need for more space. Sometimes schools have operated at higher pupil numbers but over time may have become less popular and reduced their pupil admission numbers spreading them out into surplus accommodation.

At that point we will work with the school to remodel or reallocate spaces to achieve the increase in form entry numbers which is often more economical than providing a new building.

For example, we are working with a county council in the south of England where in one case we have taken a secondary school which operated at one point on a 9-form entry basis, that is currently operating as a 6-form entry and is re-expanding to 8-forms of entry via space remodelling and re-allocation.

Also, we will examine pupil flows to see if they work at greatest efficiency. If there is a dearth of available science laboratories in proximity to each other, we may recommend reconfiguration of other spaces to ensure this happens.

In extreme cases we may need to engage the services of a specialist to undertake curriculum analysis so that if spaces are only used for limited periods per week, re-timetabling could be employed to use the space more effectively.

Keep it simple 

All too often, there is a tendency to over-complicate an expansion programme and the mantra I always use is “keep it simple” and resist project creep. With restricted budgets it is up to the project managers to establish the stakeholders’ expectations. Is a rebuild or an extension a necessity or a luxury? If a space meets the requisite standards does it really need to be totally renewed.

In one case with a school we have managed to save £1.8m against a school’s original budget that envisaged a need for brand new accommodation.

When it comes to construction procurement the school authority through its consultants must do due diligence to facilitate de-risking a project. With limited budgets, design and build contractors mustn’t be presented with unknown risks, such as contaminated land or uncertain soil conditions, otherwise they will price that risk into the contract tender.

The pros and cons of modular construction 

The next decision is whether to use traditional rather than modular construction methods. With modular construction the volumetric box is no longer the only solution which allows for architectural design input. For example, Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) and cross-laminated timber solutions that are delivered in panel sections allow much greater flexibility to create different building configurations.

However, there is a much greater need for accurate preparation work prior to ordering the panels from the factory. Once an order is made, if the piping and ductwork is in the wrong place there can be serious delays and cost over-runs if re-ordering from the factory is required. This is where Building Information Modelling comes in which will eliminate these inaccuracies once and for all. 

But modular is not necessarily cheaper and often a main contractor can negotiate meaningful sub-contractor package discounts. For example, we have delivered a school in south east London which was designed as a modular form of construction in bays to suit module widths and layouts, however a general builder offered an alternative price based on traditional construction methods which was better value.

Whichever construction method is adopted, the key-driver for success is collaboration as early as possible with architect, QS, project manager and contractor, appointed using a suitable collaborative procurement contract to ensure joint input at the design stage.

In conclusion, I believe schools can be delivered to a budget that still meets the aspirations of the teaching staff and provide quality facilities for pupils.

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