An education in modular buildings

Andy King of Wernick Buildings gives a lesson in how modular construction can delivering the extra space schools need for the future, without added disruption.

With pupil numbers in UK schools forecasted to increase over the coming years, space is at a premium and a result many schools are looking for a fast, cost-effective solution to their building capacity issues. With the ability to cut both spend and build time in half, modular construction is uniquely placed to solve this problem, with the added benefit of minimal disruption.

Modular construction methods essentially consist of buildings which are built as separate units, created in a specialist factory and then installed on site to form a complete building. These modules are more than just walls and windows however; modular methods can integrate electrics and plumbing into each component part, ready to be connected up when the building is complete. While the building is being created offsite, groundwork on site can run concurrently, speeding up the build programme.

These time savings reduce disruption to schools and can significantly decrease costs. The offsite construction method also lends itself to a stringent quality control process, where buildings are created ‘in line’ with strict tolerances, and waste production is minimised to virtually zero.

Despite the many benefits the method offers, modular has long suffered from an image problem when it comes to classrooms. Historic perceptions of box-like demountable classrooms with low quality finishes can obscure the image of what ‘modern day modular’ can achieve. Whether it is colourful rainscreen, curtain walling, barrel or butterfly roofing; modular can now provide the architectural touches previously reserved exclusively for traditional buildings, but in less time and at a reduced cost.

Case study:
Brampton Manor Academy

These capabilities are most apparent when modular buildings are used to extend or complement existing traditionally built schools. Brampton Manor Academy, an “Outstanding” rated school in London, required a new building that combined the speedy approach of modular with the block-work exterior of a traditional build. As main contractor on the project we not only created a traditional finish with blockwork and white render, but provided a standing seam curved roof and an attractive fully glazed covered walkway. The completed classroom block blended seamlessly in with the traditional looking buildings surrounding it, and provided much needed space for the school.

The school’s finance director, Kit Lam, commented:

“We are extremely proud of what has been achieved. Most importantly our pupils and staff are delighted with the building and its facilities and love spending time in such a wonderful environment.”

Not only did the completed building meet the client’s requirements exactly, the build project took only 19 weeks from conception to completion, with installation taking place through the summer holidays to minimise disruption. This shows the impressive speed with which results visually equal to a traditional building can be achieved using the method, and manufacturers can work hand-in-hand with architects to modularise complex designs effectively and efficiently.

Case study:
Birmingham Institute of Forest Research

When the institute needed a sustainable and stylish building for its FACE (Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) experiment, it chose to combine the dynamic designs of Glancy Nicholls Architects with the benefits of offsite methods.  The project was instigated to measure the effects of increased atmospheric levels of CO2 had on mature woodlands – so leaving little impact the forest surrounding the research centre was of vital importance.

The building was installed, seemingly floating, on a steel frame with helical pile foundations, meaning it would be easy to remove and relocate without affecting the local area. Thanks to the offsite build programme, the research station could be built at Wernick’s factory while the ground works were taking place and the building was installed in a single day – minimising its environmental impact.

The building also needed to visually blend with its surroundings, becoming part of the forest that would be its home. The building design consisted of three connected buildings in a staggered asymmetric layout that echoed the wild, natural landscape. It was clad in cedar shingles, which when combined with a pitched roof also removed the need for downpipes or guttering.

Staff and visitors alike were impressed with the research station according to Dr Kris Hart, Operations Manager at FACE.

“We all enjoy working here and it isn’t just the staff that like the building. Literally every visitor has commented on how nice it is; and it’s my understanding is that the landowners feel the building is so nice that they want to keep it after the experiment has finished.”

Buildings like Brampton Academy’s classroom block and the BIFoR research station are great showcases for what modular can achieve, and stories like these are becoming increasingly frequent. Thanks to modular being touted in the press as a potential answer to the UK housing shortage, the benefits of offsite construction are becoming more widely known; not just in housing, but in healthcare, commercial, and of course the education sector.

Through this increased knowledge, we hope to see modular becoming an even more prevalent construction method, benefiting a range of clients across the UK. From their sustainability and dependable build programmes, to the substantial cost and time savings they offer, modular buildings’ combined benefits puts them at the top of the class.

Andy King is managing director of Wernick Buildings