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Moving lessons

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Adaptability and flexibility are key issues facing today's owners and occupiers of buildings. They need buildings that can adapt to rapid changes. Local education authorities have long had to face up to responding to change. But often tight spending limits have led to the use of relocatable classrooms. However, in many cases these have proved unsatisfactory. The selection of Portakabin's Lilliput Nursery, developed with architects Richard Cottrell and Brian Vermeulen, prompted Essex County Council (ecc) to announce a design competition with the Design Council.

One of the problems for schools in planning capacity is that the number of children in particular catchment areas fluctuates. Tight capital budgets mean that education departments want to build schools that they know will be filled in the relatively short term, and constrained revenue budgets mean that schools do not want to have to pay for the upkeep of space they are not using.

If the number of children in an area drops, schools can be closed or amalgamated, but if the number rises the local education authority has to find extra space, often within existing schools. It is not always easy for a local authority to spend extra money on the affected schools because of other priorities.

To take up the fluctuations in school numbers, relocatable classrooms are used. The idea is that these 'temporary' buildings should eventually be replaced by a permanent structure. But often this is not a priority.

This commonly adopted solution has a bad reputation. Among education staff, the temporary classes are often seen as insubstantial structures. 'They are like being in a freezer in winter and oven in summer,' said one teacher. This of course depends on how they are designed and how old they are. Some have been around for 20 years.

Local communities and planning authorities dislike them: 'They degrade the settings of the schools. County and particularly district planners are very concerned about this,' said Chris French, capital-programmes and standards officer at ecc.

The strategy of using some form of prefabricated unit that can be placed on the site makes sense. However, the problem seems to be the kind of solutions this strategy has led to and the political context within which it happens. ecc is committed to getting rid of these relocatable units over time. But as Chris French says, it cannot do that without a viable alternative.

At the moment the authority has some 700 relocatable units throughout its 650 schools, and some schools have more temporary than permanent classrooms. County officials see a design competition as an effective means of tackling this. Essex hopes that the combined talents of architects, contractors and manufacturers will identify effective and economic, alternatives which can be used in the various environments where schools are built. For this reason it selected two quite different sites. One is a rural school where it needs to replace two relocatable classrooms, and the other is for a school hall next to a listed church. Essex hopes that a solution designed to resolve both issues a solution would be very adaptable. French stresses that it is not looking for another version of the relocatable.

This is an issue that affects most authorities in the uk and so will open up many opportunities for successful competitors. So far there have been 300 hundred requests for competition packs, from architects and manufacturers as well as other local authorities and their property departments.

For more information contact Dr C P French, capital-programmes and standards officer, Property Services, Essex County Council, PO Box 6, County Hall, Chelmsford, Essex, CM1 1LB. The competition closing date is 17 December 1999.

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