MMC = Schools of the Future

The Department for Education (DfE) is moving forward with its Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) framework utilising off-site construction techniques which is due to launch this autumn. Associate Architect Scott Lunn explores what modern methods of construction may mean for this sector and what obstacles and opportunities it brings.

When we think of modern methods of construction we think of prefabricated or modular structures. Before we discuss anything further, we must tackle the fact that ‘pre-fab’ does not sit well with public perception.

When asked to think of prefabricated or modular school buildings, most will immediately picture poorly constructed, ill-maintained classrooms from the 1960/70s – antiquated from the moment they were built and possibly never constructed with the purpose of being a ‘permanent’ structure. My first experience of a prefabricated building was in the early 90’s at secondary school. The poorly lit classroom was dark and dingy. As people walked around, each step presented an audible thud complemented with a slight bounce in the lightweight suspended floor. The acoustics were terrible, but the worst part was the temperature. Blisteringly hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. Unfortunately, this experience of modular buildings was not uncommon, and it has left its mark on our current perceptions.

The perception barrier is recognised by the government as an issue. When reviewing the benefits of modern methods of construction, Clive Betts MP and Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee said recently:

“The perception is that the building innovations of the sixties created homes that failed to survive half a century, while rows of Victorian terraces are still standing. Proving quality and longevity will be key.”

In a 2018 survey for Home Group, 52% of individuals reported they would be unlikely to live in a modular home with 70% associating a modular home with shipping container homes. With such negative perceptions of modular, you may question why the DfE is choosing to use such construction methods to create the institutions which should inspire as well as educate our future generations.

Thankfully todays modular systems and buildings offer far more than their predecessors. Modern buildings constructed using modular components and systems can deliver high performance, bespoke solutions, and perhaps best of all, you may have no idea it is a modular building at all. If the roll out of the MMC framework is successful this should enable the scales of economy to lower the construction cost of schools, bringing better value to the taxpayer or, allow the capital budget to be spent enhancing the school environment.

‘The DfE’s approach to school design is that of producing a standardised solution, and why shouldn’t it be? ‘

The DfE’s approach to school design is that of producing a standardised solution, and why shouldn’t it be? This can be seen in the heavily prescribed schedules of accommodation and detailed output specification requirements currently used, which by intent, result in largely generic design solutions. Coupled with the repetitive nature of the accommodation and classroom spaces, it makes sense to standardise the design where possible. For the above reasons modular construction lends itself well to school design.

At the Futurebuild conference in March, the DfE’s Bryan Evans said the DfE’s approach is to ‘commoditise school buildings’, and to develop a standardised offsite module chassis and even standardised elevations. The idea was to break the school’s schedule of accommodation into ‘workable suites’ and then break the suites into teaching and learning clusters. These will be based on a standard set of spaces, which can then be reconfigured to suit individual sites and schools.

It is pleasing to hear that a one-size-fits-all approach is not being pursued, and as an Architect and Designer I would never suggest it should or could be. The first thing to consider when designing a school is not the building itself, but the context in which it is sited. Site constraints will impact every design decision. What is the shape of the plot? How will the topography impact the layout? Where is the site entrance? These are just some of the fundamental questions which put stop to an off-the-shelf school. Then of course we have the local authority planning system to deal with which brings with it a multitude of requirements.

Dealing with these requirements does not rule out modular or pre-fab. The factory manufactured components allow flexibility to respond in most cases to the desires of the client, architect or planning officer. Different layouts and organisation of spaces can be catered for. If you want a brick, stone or timber façade, this is all possible. We have yet to see what the financial implications will be for moving away from the ‘standard’ offering but these tensions exist already with traditionally procured projects.

‘With greater quality control and more efficient use of materials and labour, employing manufacturing techniques will boost productivity.’

The MMC framework is therefore not about driving the standardisation of school design, we are already there. Neither is it about creating an off the shelf school, that would simply not work. What the MMC framework will deliver is a host of other benefits. The utilisation of pre-manufacturing technologies brings construction into the modern age by transferring production to the factory. With greater quality control and more efficient use of materials and labour, employing manufacturing techniques will boost productivity. This will enable faster scheme delivery with less risk of programme disruption on site, such as through bad weather. With scale, costs can be reduced through greater efficiency, delivered in a safer, controlled environment for workers. With all these benefits it is hard to understand why this won’t be the go-to solution for all new build school construction.

The move to modular will not be without its challenges. Offsite manufacturing requires a large investment up front and returns over the long term. If you have a factory, you must supply it with orders, so for modular to reach scale and therefore achieve its economic potential, it will require a stable, long term market. Next comes training, though this will hopefully be relatively easy to resolve and as the RICS point out in their policy position paper on Modern Methods of Construction;

‘MMC can help stimulate economies in less performing areas of the country. Much has been made of the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, regions which have been traditionally industrial and manufacturing hubs now experiencing contraction as traditional industries move out or shut down’. The report goes on to say;

‘MMC requires many of the same skills base and simple retraining could utilise the work force of these regions, especially the steel, car manufacturing and other fabrication industries. Government and industry need to collaborate to establish apprenticeships and training products that support the rollout of MMC and encourage new entrants into construction. This will need to be funded and enabled strategically, including the encouragement of SMEs’.

At Watson Batty we are preparing for the drive to MMC by reviewing our BIM processes (something we believe will be a key element in the move to MMC) along with reviewing our product and process knowledge. Along with a planned trip to a modular factory and CPD’s arranged from SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) manufacturers, we are taking the lead on adding value through a process of design, understanding and coordination.

I believe the biggest challenge for modular construction is shaking off the negative perceptions it currently holds. If done well, the MMC schools framework will positively impact the experience of the school environment for future generations. Given time, the impact will disband the negative perceptions of modular and we may have a new generation of construction professionals wondering why the move was not made sooner. Schools are not the only buildings which lend themselves to MMC. Healthcare, Hotels and of course Residential could all benefit from MMC. Be sure to stay tuned to hear more about our thoughts on how MMC could impact these other sectors.

Scott Lunn