Hard-hitting headlines about Tata Steel and the impending demise of the UK’s steel industry raise questions about the changing industrial landscape. Steel is by no means the only heavy industry that has wound down in the UK, in many sectors, decline is continuing. Victorian factories have found a new lease of life as apartment blocks in many cities. So as more modern factories fall out of use, it’s time to ask is there a use for the country’s next generation of unused industrial buildings?
Positively, the answer is yes. We are seeing commercial industrial space starting to be in demand again with developers also beginning to look at speculative distribution, production and manufacturing development projects.
Within the industrial sector, demand may be starting to rise but frustratingly, few older or historic spaces are suitable for companies’ current and future requirements. Usually, older industrial sites are located out of town centres and may have poor transport links. They may not have the ability to fit around more flexible, larger scale production process, which are most commonly utilised now, or there simply is not suitable storage or distribution space.
Consequently, we end up spending a lot of time configuring new uses for these spaces, which can range from charming Victorian mills to lower-grade, less attractive buildings.
A few years ago, we were involved in a Department for Education programme looking at how we could reuse these spaces for schools and education facilities – this thinking has now morphed into more frequent conversations involving the free school programmes and local authorities driven by pressures on school places due to the baby boom.
Accepting some compromises, usually in relation to outdoor space, and setting up schools in existing buildings, such as disused industrial sites, can keep costs down – a key focus for the government.
Solving the problem
We first developed a way of creating classrooms inside industrial buildings when we worked on the award winning Roundhouse Campus at Derby College. This involved the refurbishment and extension of the world’s oldest purpose built railway works to form a new FE college.
In the listed, cavernous Victorian railway sheds, we faced the challenge of creating classrooms without comprising the historic fabric. This meant freestanding, plug and play, high quality rooms. Our problem was there was nothing on the market that fulfilled our brief in terms of acoustics, size, servicing and flexibility. So we invented this innovative product.
As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding and the flexibility and adaptability of this product means it has gone on to be used in areas beyond education, on projects involving both new and unused industrial buildings including within Jaguar Land Rover’s newly built factory to create small, flexible spaces within a larger industrial setting.
We have focussed on a number of different ways of thinking about pod schools. After a couple of years of development of the technologies and strategies required, working with manufacturers and educationalists we delivered a major new build project for Leeds City Council rebuilding Leeds East Academy. Working with the school leadership we set out ground rules for how much space, internally and externally, is required for a site to function as an efficient school. These sorts of tool kits are similar to our approach in the commercial and industrial sectors and help pressure test ideas at an early stage.
The pod classroom solution takes advantage of prefabricated modular classrooms arranged in clusters to form open and enclosed teaching spaces, allowing for a reduction or elimination of inefficient corridors. Working outwards from the pods, the school environment wraps around them and takes advantage of a number of different economic, environmental and organisational benefits.
This flexible, cost effective and robust approach provides acoustically isolated environments for didactic teaching coupled with flexible open plan spaces in-between. This keeps the overall cost down as we only build the essential walls.
The school can reconfigure space internally in a way you could not with traditional spaces since pods can be grouped to create small “communities” based on the needs of the school – by faculties or year groups. Teachers choose from a basket of spaces at start of each week which ones they will inhabit for lessons and activities from their faculty’s available areas. For example, a teacher may need a classroom with acoustic quality or privacy for talking about poetry, whereas another English class studying Shakespeare may want an open plan space to try their hand at acting.
Education is certainly one good way to reuse redundant industrial buildings and sites. However, the problem is many of these sites tend to be in places where we do not need schools – industrial estates not residential areas.
The pod approach is not limited by use or sector. So when factories do end up becoming unused, this approach could see those sites being utilised for multiple purposes.
Another advantage of the system is its portability – you can pack it up and move it to another site without damaging the permanent walls. There are also tax advantages with a demountable pod system compared with conventional buildings.
Overall, the future will mean inevitable change for many industrial buildings, but as we have proven, there are ways of reusing large-scale industrial, open plan buildings in a cost efficient, adaptable way which can be used for a number of different activities, including education facilities.