Posted: 31.05.2016

Steve Basran shares his insight into modular school designs.


We have been working on innovative school design concepts since the post 2010 education policy rethink, where the government launched initiatives to build schools more efficiently, sustainably and cheaply.

Compared to the Building Schools for the Future programme, the government set out parameters for new designs to represent a reduction in wasted space – 15% for secondary schools and five percent for primary schools, as well a 30% reduction in construction costs.


Standardisation is the key to saving time and driving value. Some critics find the standardised approach inflexible. However, at the same time our need to deliver schools quickly whilst lowering costs has increased since 2010. So how can we make standardised design a welcome, viable solution? We have worked up a number of a scalable and economic models for delivering high-quality schools, showing how design creativity – when fully harnessed – can deliver good design that saves money.


When we design a project, we look closely at the construction process but we also consider the entire life cycle of the building. Collaboration with specialists means we can drive innovation and develop new techniques while maintaining the government’s high environmental requirements, which focus on maintaining good quality teaching space. After all quality of teaching is by far the most important factor for school success, with research suggesting a link between quality of school buildings and quality of education.


While standardisation reduces construction costs and delivers new schools more quickly across the board, the context, user requirements and processes will vary from project to project. Our two main standardised solutions provide the ability to tailor each project rather than imposing a one-design-fits-all philosophy.


Solution one – SIPs panels

We have designed a flexible ‘kit of parts’ approach which in effect is a modular SIPs panel frame design allowing rapid construction, using innovative off-site construction techniques. It creates a flexible system, which can finely balance the acoustic, daylight, mechanical and electrical needs and thermal comfort of any school building, while delivering well over and above the basic building regulation requirements. 

We worked closely with system manufacturers to optimise a number of elements, components and units, which are employed across batches of schools for economies of scale.


Our method maximises the efficiencies of standardisation while enabling each school to look and feel unique. For example, we can apply a variety of different external treatments. This allows us to provide responses that fit within local context, vernacular and environment to meet particular planning requirements for each location. Schools should not be picked out of a brochure like furniture. Some providers offer this by removing the design consultants from the equation. Without the contribution of those professionals, expertise is lost and the end-results are buildings geared for the economies of modular production processes not for the creation of exemplar learning environments.


Solution two – teaching pods


The pod classroom solution takes advantage of prefabricated modular classrooms arranged in clusters to form open and enclosed teaching spaces, allowing for a reduction of wasteful corridors. Working outwards from the pods, the school environment wraps around them and takes advantage of a number of different economic 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. Pods can be grouped to create small ‘communities’ based on the needs of the school, such as by faculties or year groups.


The use of pods is not limited to teaching spaces. They can provide 80% of the type of spaces required within a school, such as workshops, labs, offices, resource bases and toilet provisions. Spaces such as sports and dining halls still need to be constructed in a more traditional way.


This creates a flexible and economic architectural ‘shell’, within which individual components are added, to create a mix of learning and social spaces bespoke to the individual school’s requirements. Our design also had to be capable of future reuse for non-educational purposes, with the building envelope entirely independent of any internal structure providing the authority with a future-proofed asset. 


The pod classroom concept provides true long-term flexibility, as they can be reconfigured to meet the needs of changing teaching styles or even be adapted to change the entire use of the site, for example into office or warehousing space by adding or removing pods with minimal disruption. 

Because there are a number of variables as well as external pressures, we always work very closely with all stakeholders to ensure the most suitable, energy efficient and cost effective standardised design approach is chosen.”