Modular – Top Of The Class

As we find ourselves already into the second half of first term in the academic year and hurtling towards Christmas, time’s relentless march vividly demonstrates how quickly our children grow up…and how much ongoing investment our ageing education system requires.

Primary, secondary and further educational institutions in all parts of the UK will have found themselves facing multiple challenges from the very first day of term – too few/many students; insufficient space; strains on financial and human resources; looming deadlines and difficulties in planning for the longer-term. The list seems endless. The urgency is pressing.

The modular construction industry isn’t, of course, a panacea for our education system’s infrastructural deficiencies. But, in terms of faster, cheaper, greener, safer, more efficient, more flexible and ultimately less disruptive building solutions, modular is top of the class.

I have repeatedly said to the boards of management, teachers and parents’ associations with whom I’ve engaged over the years that it is a privilege for us in the modular industry to be helping to safeguard the education and futures of the current, next and subsequent generations. With privilege comes responsibility, and we have a responsibility to present a compelling case to (1) decision-makers and (2) students that modular construction provides nimble, durable and sustainable educational solutions and an innovative and rewarding career option for a broad range of skillsets.

As a father of three young children (two of them of school-going age), I am proud that offsite construction of our educational and other projects delivers a significant reduction (67%) in waste compared with an equivalent, traditionally-built project. No hazardous materials are sent to our educational sites, as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) is controlled and managed offsite in a factory environment. Furthermore, the impact on a school’s environment (noise, package, emissions, number of vehicle movements, time onsite) is reduced with modular construction.

Pre-fitting our school modules with electrics, plumbing, heating and the initial internal finishes from the factory before being delivered onsite, means a relatively straightforward craning and fixing into position onto prepared foundations.

The headaches of navigating the choppy (and pricey) waters of building regulations, planning permissions, concept design, project management, delivery, site works and completion can all be alleviated by Actavo’s full turnkey package. This means every question answered, every step of the journey explained and actioned on your behalf, with your approval.
Educational modular solutions are specifically designed with both the teacher and student in mind. Our coordinated 3D visualisation and spatial layout of the exact buildings required help in the planning and execution phases. The adaptable and relocatable nature of the finished product provide school authorities with a suite of options for today and tomorrow (chief among them accommodating fluctuating student numbers and establishing environmental performance and savings made through a building’s life) that traditionally weren’t available.

While many schools request a radical refresh of their facilities, others can be understandably concerned about how the addition of modular accommodation to existing educational facilities might impact the ‘personality’ of the buildings. We pay particular attention to ensuring that the architectural heritage, interior, exterior and overall unique character of each educational facility, whatever its shape or size, are preserved, as per the customers’ wishes.

There are many testimonies across the UK about traditionally-built, purpose-built schools constructed decades ago not having withstood the test of time, in terms of modern-day educational requirements. ‘Purpose-built’ does not necessarily mean ‘fit for purpose’ in the future! In stark contrast, modular construction, on the other hand, ‘fits with purpose’ and its flexibility enables ‘re-purposing for fitting’ and ‘re-fitting for purpose’.

The ‘quiet revolution’ of modular construction is, I believe, about to get louder and more disruptive (that is, disruptive in a constructive, rather than unruly, way). Since opening in July, Actavo’s new 120,000 sq ft manufacturing facility in Hull has been a hive of activity from day one. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of jobs we have been working on since opening in July have been for education.
The spike in demand for bespoke modular accommodation bodes well for the sector (we have just created over 30 jobs, and this is set to rise over the coming year). But, perhaps more particularly, the increased demand highlights a widespread recognition across the educational community of the need for modernisation and/or expansion of existing facilities.

But a spike in demand must be met with a commensurate increase in supply. With our construction industry facing a number of threats – not least an ageing sectoral workforce that isn’t being replaced in sufficient numbers, competition from other sectors and Brexit’s implications for foreign workers in the UK – how is the modular construction sector, specifically, staving off these threats and pitching itself to current and future graduates?

It is my firm belief that the modular construction sector can be better marketed as the intersection of engineering, architecture, technology and other creative disciplines, marrying a range of professions in a dynamic and flourishing ecosystem. The adoption of BIM brings an additional technology element into the industry, making it engaging and enticing to younger people. In addition, the transformative impact of wearable technologies is being increasingly adopted in modular construction, from both safety and productivity perspectives. These include safety vests with GPS, hard hats with virtual display visors and augmented reality devices to experience design elements, and which are being used for clash detection through BIM, among other functions.

Also, deploying drones for site inspections (which heretofore necessitated a team spending a full day, often in inclement weather, measuring, taking photos and analysing data) is another notable development that can help turn the heads of future graduates. Drones, in short, are a cheaper, faster and safer alternative. Their flight paths can survey an area either through remote control or ‘autonomously’ via pre-planned instructions. Such relaying of data, video and results in real-time ensures the job is done quicker and more effectively. And these stimulating practices can help blur the line between work and play. Extra-curricular, of sorts.

With major advances in modular construction in recent years, we should be confidently moving towards a stage where future generations of engineers, architects, quantity surveyors and creatives – the pillars of educational architecture – will be actively seeking to work in shaping smart spaces for educational and other purposes. If, as an industry, we do our homework, we’ll achieve the results.

Matt Goff is UK Operations Director at Actavo | Building Solutions