Fourteen going on fifteen

Simon Fry looks back on how the education construction sector developed in 2014 and predicts what the new year may hold

A look back at this year suggests the construction sector is rising to the challenge of ensuring pupils and students have adequate premises in which to learn. Links between developers and educational organisations are becoming increasingly popular while innovative construction techniques are speeding up delivery without compromising standards. Higher education institutions are recognising new demands made by fee-paying learners and are reacting accordingly.

Balfour Beatty is one of the UK’s leading school and higher education infrastructure providers. Tim Sutlieff, its LEP/LABV director, said: “Although some contracts continue to be procured locally, many are now delivered through regional frameworks including the £4bn Education Funding Agency (EFA) contractors framework (north and south), Improvement and Efficiency South East (IESE) framework and North Wales Schools and Public Building Framework. Looking forward, the growing schools sector will present a significant challenge. With limited funding available, demographics dictate that the demand for new school places will continue to grow as will the need to replace and renew existing stock.”

The Priority School Building Programme is a centrally managed programme set up to address the needs of 261 schools spread across the entirety of England most in need of urgent repair, with Coventry’s Whitmore Park Primary School, which reopened in May, the first to be rebuilt. Through the programme, schools will be rebuilt or have their condition needs met by the EFA.

A spokesman said: “The EFA is working with 257 of the schools in the programme; these are at various stages within the development cycle: feasibility/planning, procurement, construction and open with 59 schools currently under construction. The programme is on track to meet the commitments made: to start feasibility/planning work with all schools by the end of 2015 and to have all schools open in their new or refurbished buildings by the end of 2017. Activity on the programme will reach its peak in the middle of 2015 when activity will be greater than expected as the programme is planning to deliver two years earlier than originally planned. It is being delivered using the EFA Contractors Framework and the EFA Regional Framework. We have received very positive feedback from the contractors regarding the processes being following and the clarity of decision making under the central delivery model.”

Playground and play equipment orders rose almost five per cent in 2014’s second quarter, according to the Association of Play Industries (API). API member companies reported orders worth £43.7m – a 4.7 per cent increase on the first quarter (£41.7m) and the highest second-quarter order levels since 2010. However, that fell to £40.9m in the third quarter with a year-to-date order figure of £126m. The API expects to see total annual order values of around £164m in 2014, compared to £162m in 2013.

In 2014, API members saw increased demand for equipment related to sport and physical activity, driven by Sports Premium funding, and equipment providing challenging and open-ended play. Early years’ schemes within or attached to schools were also popular as were all-weather spaces and surfacing for year-round outdoor learning and play.

In 2015, members expect to see further government-funded investment in better facilities for sport, PE and active play. Schools will feel pressure to be more flexible with their outdoor space as rising intake numbers demand increased classroom space, and there will be increased demand for equipment for older children, and for modular or multi-use equipment.

High demands to create more school places combined with our growing population are major factors in the rapid increase in the use of modular construction in UK education.

Modular construction is strictly regulated and buildings for the education sector are designed and constructed within the latest guidelines from the Department for Education. Jackie Maginnis, Modular & Portable Buildings Association (MPBA) chief executive, said: “Both our UK and overseas member numbers are increasing. One of the main reasons is because the association provides accurate technical and health and safety information. Also, as the part L building regulations came into effect earlier this year, members of the MPBA can produce documents to prove energy-efficiency compliance of a building, providing customers with added confidence that modular buildings are safe, robust and energy efficient.”

Scape Group is a local authority-owned built environment specialist offering a full suite of national frameworks and design solutions. Chief executive Mark Robinson said: “In 2014 we found an increasing number of clients favoured our standardised approach to schools and extensions at the primary level due to the pressure on places. The need to provide many tens of thousands of primary places will continue to place a big demand on the education capital budget. Secondary schools are yet to experience the same pressures and in many cases are still seeking bespoke solutions, though I anticipate they will face similar problems as the primary surge moves through into the secondary sector. To date we have created 11,000 school places and 20 new schools through Sunesis and Connect, and we expect 2015 may see an upward shift in these volumes as standardisation is no longer seen as the new kid on the block, but an essential across all education levels.”

Mark endorses the benefits of modular construction as represented by the MPBA. “We also anticipate more offsite manufacturing next year, which cuts the delivery time by around two-thirds and yet delivers comparable standards of finishes, operational efficiencies and educational outcomes.”

The higher education landscape has shifted significantly in recent years, with David Keith, Sweett Group director of cost consultancy, observing ongoing changes. “The increase in university tuition fees continues to have a major impact on construction in higher education; students want to make sure they get their money’s worth, with universities no longer being able to rely solely on their academic offering. Facilities are playing a crucial part in the selection process for students. Estate directors are having to put plans in place such that their buildings attract new students and facilitate increased activity and occupation. The major areas of investment over the past year Sweett Group has identified are research facilities and student support services as well as student accommodation.”

Collaborative construction will become more common, according to David. “Universities partnering with private sector firms in order to help fund their developments has been around for many years, but will become increasingly more important. Sweett Group has and is currently delivering collaborative projects for Imperial College London and the University of Manchester. It is likely more universities will begin to partner with private firms in order for them to receive the investment required to produce the state-of-the-art facilities students now expect.”

AUDE’s Higher Education Estates Statistics Report, published in September, illuminates the role of higher education in the economy. “The turnover of the (university) sector (£27.3bn) would put it in fourth place in the FTSE 350 top revenues (after Tesco £63bn; Vodafone £38.3bn; SSE £30.6bn; and ahead of Sainsbury’s £23.9bn).”

The recession’s end may bring unwelcome news. The report states: “One point to note is that as the economy recovers, and the property industry improves, there is the potential for tender prices to rise as more construction is undertaken. This will have an impact on the HE sector where either more capital will have to be found, or projects may have to be reduced in scale. The sector has been investing substantially in the estate over the last decade … and the age of the estate is getting younger. One of the sector’s key challenges was its substantial growth in the late 1950s and 1960s. Typically these buildings will have an anticipated life of, say, 30 years, and the refurbishment and replacement of this estate has been a significant part of many universities’ capital programmes for a number of years.”

Ian Whittle of FaulknerBrowns Architects has been operating in the HE sector for 15 years. Despite student numbers rising significantly, a recent trend has offset any need for bigger buildings.” The last five-to-ten years have seen a focus on projects which are not about growth but consolidation. A typical facility space is used only 10-15 per cent of the time, especially if it’s something like a laboratory. A figure of around 40 per cent represents best practice, so there is enormous scope for better utilisation of space, driven by the fact it costs around £2,500 per sqm to construct new buildings. The trend in the overall consolidation of campuses is to keep them at their existing size or even reduce their size.”

Students are increasingly adopting a certain mindset when choosing their university. “Most are paying £9,000 and there is little distinction between universities with little in the way of a ‘value’ option. Students have greater awareness of their investment – in effect they are buying an experience as well as a qualification. This is driving construction of more luxurious halls. It must be noted parents have significant input to their child’s university choice – a lot of the cost goes back to them. Safety and security are important. There is a flight to quality, with all universities looking to raise standards.”

A wow factor is now more important than ever. “Around 80 per cent of students are considering facilities when choosing their course. This can be through online research but the open day impact is also significant. Two universities I won’t name have built high-quality campus residential facilities driven by the fact they will be seen on open days. Other facilities are either away from campus or of not good enough quality. They want to be able to take parents around them even if they are not representative of accommodation in general.”

Ian echoes findings in the Higher Education Estates Statistics Report with regard to trends in learning and the resulting architectural requirements. “While residential facilities are important, students are also interested in group working and social learning spaces for out-of-hours study. At Newcastle University’s student union we were involved recently in providing access to such areas in terms of IT and AV and individual study space. Lancaster University’s sports facilities have been completely redeveloped as students are looking for social and lifestyle facilities and sport is a key part of this.”

Provision of higher education accommodation is becomingly increasingly attractive to construction companies. “The residential sector is interesting and very active now as it is seen as an investment class in its own right, bringing good returns for private developers.

Smart developments can generate higher rewards – lots of cities are at saturation point with ‘bog standard’ student accommodation and the bigger providers are introducing brands almost so you know what you are going to get. Student accommodation is starting to go the same way. Private sector accommodation can cost as much as £120/£130 per week and universities are looking to offer a lower level as they have a target to provide accommodation for all of their first-year intake.”

Teachers and tutors often implore their pupils and students to ‘work smarter, not harder’ and the educational building sector is doing just that. From modular construction cutting delivery times by two-thirds to campus consolidation ensuring greater space utilisation, increased efficiency means learners receive the education they need while schools and universities enjoy time and cost savings. Some benefits are harder to prove – the children enjoying active play in 2014 are the healthy middle-aged adults of the mid-21st century. The education construction sector remains resolutely forward-looking.

Balfour Beatty W:
Scape W:
Sweett Group W;
FaulknerBrown W:



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