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L-R: , Neil Smith, Carol Lees, John Youle, Mike Coleman

Roundtable: review of the year

As 2015 comes to a close, we look back at the year in education construction with key industry figures

Posted by Stephanie Broad | December 07, 2015 | People, policy, politics, money


John Youle, Director at Beard 

Carol Lees, Partner at HawkinsBrown

Neil Smith, Technical Director at UK Energy Partners

Mike Coleman, Education Director at Willmott Dixon 

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

JY: Two interesting Beard projects that stand out this year are both based at the University of Oxford. The first is The Queen’s College where we are constructing a basement library extension adjacent to the Grade 1-listed library and under the Provost’s garden; and Worcester College where we are building the new Nazrin Shah Building, which will provide a new lecture theatre and seminar rooms, due for completion in Autumn 2016. 

CL: HawkinsBrown’s involvement with the #GreatSchools campaign in collaboration with the Architects Journal, which we launched in March this year, has allowed us to meet and talk with lots of other people involved with the process of delivering schools, including other architects, contractors, clients and educationalists. The campaign arose from an awareness of the momentum around the school building programme, and the urgency to create school places for pupils.

UTC Cambridge interior image courtesy of Hawkins/Brown

NS: For me, the most interesting development has been volumetric construction. 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 in the factory and be on and off-site very quickly.

MC: Willmott Dixon handed over the University of Birmingham School, the first University Training School (UTS) to open, this summer. We are in the unique position of delivering the only other UTS, for the University of Cambridge, so far approved. The free school, UTC and UTS programmes offer opportunities to explore innovative solutions for delivering quality, and cost effective, facilities. Contractors need to respond to the challenge of providing buildings that are efficient both in terms of ongoing maintenance and space allocation, as well as responding to the aspirations of users to provide attractive learning environments within their budget. The University of Birmingham School is testament to how this challenge can be met. 

Have you seen any new techniques, materials or cost-saving methods, from home or abroad?

JY: The project to build a new KS1 building for Davenies School in Beaconsfield was one of two buildings we have constructed using cross-laminated timber building frames. These solid timber panels form the walls, floor and roof structure giving a very solid easy to work on building which can achieve a watertight envelope early in the programme. It’s also sustainable because the timber is sourced from managed forests in mainland Europe where it has been used for a number of years.  It’s quite unusual for the UK.

Laminated timber at Davenies School

CL: Free Schools, introduced by the current government, mean groups of people can get together and put forward a case to open a school if they feel there is a need.

The original model came from Sweden. We went on a study trip to look at one in Helsingborg, Sweden. The building was a converted office, which had a central atrium with offices around the outside over a number of floors. The central atrium was converted into the heart of the school with colourful fixed furniture providing multiple uses as; reception to the school, canteen, teaching space break out space and independent learning areas. It was a really successful conversion and provided fantastic teaching space for not much money. 

NS: 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 used a structural glue laminated timber frame, creating 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.

MC: BIM continues to drive the industry to improve the whole life efficiency and value of the facilities we build. Our clients expect its use, such that an inability to move to Level 2 will preclude bidding for many public sector projects.

BIM will further drive standardised componentry and design, although the latter will never be ubiquitous – the range of site constraints and conditions are too vast to allow ‘one size fits all’. Nor will standardisation alone produce efficiencies, as each iteration of a standard design needs to draw upon the experience of its predecessor, so we can refine the process, reducing waste and construction time on site, and thus create even more value.

What challenges exist for building great educational establishments?

JY: Budget is a common challenge in both public and private sector education projects, and while this can limit choice, it must still deliver value for money.

Logistics are very often a challenge, particularly when you are working around live teaching environments where you need to ensure sufficient facilities and teaching space is maintained while new facilities are built.

In the state sector, some government procurement practices have resulted in the creation of construction frameworks, which are poorly suited to deliver good value for money projects. This is going to be an increasing challenge in the future for schools which are not able to make their own procurement decisions.

CL: Building schools in this economic climate is a challenge. We’d like to see a change in procurement to increase the architect’s role – design intelligence input – value base solutions rather than generic ones that can be costly and scrimp on quality. Every school needs a masterplan and framework to work within. They are as likely to be given £20k as £3m, and they need to know what to do with this money, no matter how big or small.

NS: 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.

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.  

MC: In England alone, we face the challenge of providing nearly 900,000 additional places by 2024, and even that may be an underestimate. When one also considers that a significant proportion of these places will be provided on tight urban sites, we need the capability to provide additional accommodation with a minimum footprint but the flexibility to provide a range of curriculum solutions within tight budgets.

How has the outcome of this year’s General Election affected school building activity?

JY: I don’t think that there has been a marked effect at the moment. Perhaps the independent sector is more confident to press ahead with development and certainly the level of activity has been growing over the last couple of years. In the state sector the need for primary school places to cope with population changes has been the biggest driver of schools construction work.

CL: Whatever your political view, it is apparent we have now entered a period of political stability.  Successions of Governments have tinkered with education policy and there is an urgent need to create more school provision, but the process is being impaired by short-termism and a one-size-fits-all approach driven by cost and not long term value.

With public sector austerity there are obvious concerns about a lack of maintenance. A recent survey identified that 42% of school buildings over ten years old, were graded “poor to satisfactory” and in need of repair. This year’s election means school funders need to be even more creative in how they invest in their estates.

NS: 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. 

MC: It has provided certainty about the direction of travel for the next five years, and continuity for existing programmes. Providing 500 new free schools in this Parliament is a huge challenge for both the EFA and contractors, but it is one we understand and will rise to.

It would be helpful to understand the future of the PSBP, and whether phase three (and beyond!) is likely to emerge soon. The condition needs of the schools estate are well understood, even if finding the capital to address even the worst examples is more challenging.

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

JY: Firstly, think about how the building is going to be used and design-in appropriate finishes and services that will be attractive, function well and be robust! The organisational culture is also important – buildings last longer if they are properly looked after, cared for and respected. 

CL: Brand new solutions to replace aging building stock within education estates is expensive; often the answer doesn’t lie in starting again but in taking a long term approach. We need to be asking how are they using their existing premises? Are they being efficient? 

Our top tip is simple. Move away from short-term ‘quick fix’ solutions. Let design in and we will end up with better buildings, better value for overall capital cost and better education outcomes. 

NS: 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.  Also, to pay due consideration to the true maintenance costs of their new buildings.

MC: Plan a medium to long-term maintenance strategy – there may be nothing sexy or exciting about it, but not doing so will lead to far greater issues down the line. Having a detailed inventory of building assets, informed by expert advice about both its existing condition and the likely timetable for structural and component failure, will allow leaders to prioritise investment. While there are many pressures on budgets, not investing in the estate is such a false economy. And potential ‘clients’ – students, parents, staff – of an institution may vote with their feet if the facilities don’t match their expectations. 

University of Birmingham interior view courtesy of Willmott Dixon

What does the future look like for construction in education? 

JY: Education will continue to be a strong customer for construction. The primary school expansion programmes of the last few years will have to continue to secondary and higher education. The sector that is under represented (and underfunded) is further education, particularly for vocational courses. This is going to contribute to the skills shortage in construction as young people are not sufficiently encouraged at school or by the industry to choose construction trades and careers.  

CL: There is an optimism around school building which wasn’t there a couple of years ago. No single school is the same as the next. Where perhaps this has become particularly apparent to us is where we are working for Southwark across six primary schools in parallel. We have worked with each headteacher and school community to ensure our designs reflect the strengths, uniqueness and priorities of each school. 

Fundamentally, all schools consist of the same elements - classrooms, smaller rooms, specialist rooms, administration space, a hall/dining space, staff areas etc.  We must utilise standard components wherever possible to make the future maintenance of schools as straightforward and economic as possible. 

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

MC: The push to improve the efficiency of school construction will not abate, and contractors will, I’m sure, continue to respond appropriately.

As the school estate becomes more diverse, so the industry will need to understand and provide facilities for an increasing diversity of pedagogical models. Free schools, UTCs, studio schools and UTSs were created to offer genuine alternatives to ‘traditional’ schooling, often using non-education accommodation and sites that might never have been considered previously. 

The need for more school places is increasing, with many areas already seeing the effects flow through to secondary schools. This pressure is only going to increase in the coming decade. 

One familiar theme looms large – much of our school building stock is in a dire condition. The Department’s own survey of the schools estate in the previous parliament confirmed what we already knew, that the estate contains some seriously ropey buildings. PSBP is a welcome response, but at current levels of spend will only treat the tip of the tip of the iceberg. A bigger, bolder solution will be needed, and soon if the pace of deterioration in the estate is to be slowed and eventually reversed.

Want more insight from our experts? Keep an eye on the website for the full Q&A from each participant this week.

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