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BSF review pushes prefab schools

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All 719 scrapped Building Schools for the Future (BSF) projects could be built if the government uses off-site construction of standardised modules, according to sources within the capital review team

The so-called James Review, tasked with finding cheaper alternatives to the governments’ doomed £55 billion school programme, is expected to endorse a radical overhaul of the BSF procurement process when it reveals its findings next month.

A source close to the team said: ‘All the schools the government wants to build can be built with the money available. This will mean more modular building. It will be quicker and cheaper – these projects were taking immense amounts of time.’

The £4 billion academies framework is expected to deliver the majority of the work. It is understood the review team, which controversially included consultants from the Tesco and Dixons Store groups, wants UK schools to be delivered as cheaply as those in the US, where projects come in at £500 per m2.

Paul Monaghan, former vice-chair of CABE’s schools design panel and director at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris welcomed a review of the procurement process. He said: ‘These are more austere times and we’ve got to think more laterally about these buildings… I’m pleased they are thinking about changing the process radically, because I don’t know an architect in the country who liked it.’

The resurrection of prefab schools however, has raised doubts from architects who fear the effects of a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Michael Olliff, director at Scott Brownrigg, said he would not be happy delivering a prefab school. ‘I believe in local solutions for local needs, you can’t do that with standardised products… Is society ready for a return to CLASP buildings?’

Laura Marr of Edward Cullinan Architects, which is working on schools including the Brampton Manor School said: ‘From our experience, generally schools are not large enough or repetitive enough in their unit sizes to construct them out of limited standard modules.’

Meanwhile David Morley of David Morley Architects said: ‘If that’s just the shell without the furniture, £500 per m2seems an extraordinarily challenging budget for a warehouse, let alone a school.’


Further comment

Its relief to see that they’ve got someone from Dixons and someone from Tescos working on this. I was worried they might have someone sorting it out whohas no understanding of making quality buildings, or creating a distinct sense of place . phew. Now I can relax knowing we’ll get the quality we deserve atrock bottom prices.

The idea that you can build anything for £500 psm is laughable. An what about refurbs? Don’t see how off site construction is going to help repair in-suturoofs.

Sean Griffiths, FAT

I think it is worth saying that off-site construction does not necessarily mean a reduction in quality or a return to modular design exemplified by portakabin or super shed architecture however I would argue that modular off-site construction is not the simple economic answer to produce cheaper school buildings. From our experience generally schools are not large enough or repetitive enough in their unit sizes to construct them out of limited standard modules and generally with these systems the more variants the more cost. Also many school sites are complex and require a degree of bespoke design to maximise the potential of their site. Having said that I think there is a future in bespoke designs using more flexible off-site pre-fabricated elements, to speed up construction time which may reduce the total cost of building. There are good examples of new schools of high quality design constructed from bespoke shaped, off-site manufactured solid timber panels, and before the BSF was scrapped by the government, we were enjoying developing proposals for a new school in Newham using Laing O’Rourke’s concrete sandwich panel solution they describe as Design for Manufacture and Assembly DfMA, which has enough flexibility in it’s unit sizes and organisational options, to allow an efficient but high quality design. This would have offered factory finished concrete surfaces, faster construction and there would be minimal or no wet trades on site as the panels would be craned into location. This solution would also provide the thermal mass of the school and so contribute to the low carbon solution we were developing with them. Our experience is that schools contractors are thinking more holistically about solutions considering all the complex requirements eg element costs, pre-fabrication, low energy targets, demanding space standards, community and other use impact on design, decant costs, new building regulation requirements and recommendations including building bulletins, planning considerations, DDA, operation and maintenance costs etc. etc. and are employing architects as design managers to help with these complex integrated considerations that effect the product and the cost. The off-site pre-fabricated elements may be more expensive when considering the initial cost of the material and fabrication but the reduced time on site could have a significant impact on reducing cost, with additional benefits including reducing noise and dust during construction and omitting the need for temporary accommodation that is expensive and can be disruptive and logistically complicated with phasing and decanting.

Laura Marr, Edward Cullinan Architects


There are plenty of examples of schemes that have benefitted from off-site manufacture, component design and standardised approaches, in whole or as part of a scheme. In fact in sectors such as housing, the RIBA has been calling on developers to actively seek to innovate in construction methodologies and to explore some of the benefits of off-site manufacturing - as they do in many other countries where such processes do not stimulate the reservations we hear expressed in the UK. Off-site manufacture and standardisation of some elements of school buildings can undoubtedly play a significant role in reducing the cost of constructing schools, and in themselves do not compromise the quality of a building.

However these approaches can only ever be part of the solution - they are not a general panacea. Many school projects are highly complex, particularly refurbishments and extensions, and off-site manufactured solutions may not be an appropriate or practical response. The appropriate test of any school building project will be whether it meets the standards required, and can deliver the school’s vision and meet their needs within the budget. Whether that is done with an off-the-peg classroom block or a bespoke design making the most of existing buildings should not be decided by a one-size-fits-all Government policy.



We don’t comment on leaks. We will set out the next steps of the school building programme in due course. Ministers want the Capital Review’s interim report toinform the ongoing spending review negotiations and the final report to shape the long-term capital investment programme. We are not going to pre-empt that process.

Department for Education

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Readers' comments (1)

  • So the Dept for Education dont comment on leaks? What about the ones that riddle the 80 year old roof at my children's school?

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