The fabulous pre-fab

According to its makers, it can reduce construction costs by an average of 30 percent and can be erected in just 20 weeks.

The latest figures suggest that the rising birth rate has left England needing about 2,000 new primary schools within the next three years. Department for Education statistics show the primary school population is expected to rise by 454, 571 by 2015 – the equivalent of 2,030 extra schools based on the current average intake of new 224 pupils per school.

The most acute crisis is in London where an additional 100,000 places are needed. Lancashire is short of 14,000 places and Birmingham, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Leeds all need at least 11,000 extra places. The Design Council CABE has endorsed a Sunesis Keynes standardised school, which is one of the first to have been launched to the UK market.

Sunesis is a joint initiative between public sector construction procurement company Scape and contractor Willmott Dixon. There are plans to submit a further four models to undergo the same Design Council review process.

Pre-fab schools were last used in the 1960s to 1980s. They were built as part of the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme. These metal framed concrete constructions have become extremely unpopular in recent years. The Design Council has said the new approach opens up the debate into the benefits and possibilities of delivering standardised designs, which is necessary given the efficiency drive to cut the cost of school building schemes.

To date, there has been much debate about the pros and cons of such an approach. Supporters believe standardisation offers certainty in costs and delivery timescales. Others argue that it may not meet the needs of an end user, as the lack of a bespoke, individual design is less likely to meet a particular context or brief. That perception is changing, however, with the Design Council stating that Keynes could provide a valuable learning environment, offering proactive spaces for learning and play.

Alan Thompson, Design Council senior advisor, explained: “We have made a number of general comments about the long term challenges for the standardised process and for the design of both buildings and the landscape. We find the Sunesis Keynes project to be a valuable response to the challenges of delivering new primary schools.

“And providing the client and design team continue to develop their models further, we believe this could be a successful way to build new schools, specifically where both the site and client brief are at the less demanding end of the spectrum.”

News of the Design Council endorsement comes after Warwickshire County Council purchased the £2.2m Keynes model and construction of the first standardised Sunesis school in the UK got underway at Oakfield Primary in Rugby. Local authority controlled company Scape believes standardisation is the way forward.

A shift in perception
Scape’s CEO Mark Robinson explained: “According to the National Audit Office and Construction Excellence, over 50 per cent of public buildings are delivered late and cost more than first thought. Sunesis is different, in that it offers complete certainty in cost, time and quality up front. Time and cost certainty are critical factors for local authorities to consider, particularly as demand in many parts of the UK is outstripping supply. A surge in birth rates over recent years means that pupil numbers in many existing school buildings is nearing capacity.”

On average, Sunesis is set to reduce the cost of a new school facility by up to 30 per cent, and the build programme by around 20 weeks. It is available to any public sector client via Scape’s National Contractor Framework, to which Willmott Dixon was re-appointed in 2010 following a competitive tender process as the sole delivery contractor.

Aside from Oakfield, there are several other Sunesis schemes in the pipeline. Councils and schools are able to choose from three other standardised primary school designs (Newton, Paxton and Dewey). One model (Mondrian) is available to secondary schools. their emerging needs and priorities.

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