MMC in school design should be treated with openness, not suspicion

6th May 2020

Modern methods are nothing for architects to fear and could actually protect design quality, argues Sheppard Robson’s James Jones.

Schools being built using Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is inevitable. In fact, it’s happening already. So, what does this mean for architects?

Some architects already have experience with MMC schools of one sort or another—3d volumetric or 2d panelised—and others are quickly gearing up as they work with teams on the Department for Education’s (DfE) offsite framework. However, it is probably fair to say that there is still a suspicion in the profession that MMC in schools is part of a move away from quality design towards utilitarian, non-designed, bulk-buy educational spaces.

Considering the vast number of school buildings across the country and the importance of good educational environments, it is entirely proper for government to take a rigorous and analytical approach to school design and quality.

MMC may well help this, and architects who believe in quality school environments should embrace the opportunities of offsite technology. If done right, MMC could be a great leveller, holding the key to delivering high-quality schools across the country, irrespective of location, socio-economic context or politics.

Starting from the guidance formerly contained in Building Bulletins, the DfE has developed a ‘pattern book’ for schools in which teaching and support spaces are already highly componentised. Up to now, however, schools designed using these ‘educational components’ have generally been constructed in a traditional manner. The logic of pairing school components with modern constructional technology is undeniable, and it should benefit school architecture as much as construction quality, programme and cost.

Architects have already proved their worth in the design of new schools. Not through ‘iconic’ designs, but in the true architectural skill of arranging a defined set of components in an efficient manner. A skill that both satisfies the educational needs of a unique school community and responds to the particulars of a specific site and differences in local social and planning policy. Getting this right is a tremendous achievement, but it’s hard, especially when budgets, overall area limits (GIFA) and programmes are tight to the point of breaking—not to mention consultant fees. Can the move to MMC help? There are some positive reasons why it might.

The government believes that the use of MMC offsite technologies will bring improvements to all three of the holy trinity of construction: time, quality and cost. Certainly in the long term, after some inevitable prototyping, the first two should see improvements. Factory production is cleaner, more accurate and less wasteful, and the fact that it can progress in parallel with site preparation and groundworks might help programme. Considering quality, architects often design cleverly to provide well-proportioned schools within DfE guidelines, yet the finished buildings are compromised due to lack of on-site quality control and a failure to coordinate components—particularly M&E services. The space planning may be excellent, but the finish is uninspiring. Offsite construction will significantly improve this problem.

How about the third parameter: cost? Will it be cheaper? Perhaps, given time, however, MMC will dramatically change how we measure building costs and how cost-control interacts with the other two parameters of time and quality. The RICS, in their 2018 paper on MMC, acknowledge that offsite requires that cost decisions, which means design, material and manufacturing decisions are fixed much earlier in the programme: “the points at which labour is most intensively used throughout a project differs from traditional build, with the cost curve far more front-loaded.” From a cost control perspective, this front-loading is considered a risk. From a design fixity and quality perspective, however, it is a positive.

Often with schools the need to cut cost late in the design programme leads to ill-considered change. This effects build quality, but often also some significant part of the educational vision, painstakingly briefed and integrated into the design. Fixing costs early is only a risk insofar as the early design is not precisely costed, including costing of risks. If MMC forces design and cost decisions to be fixed earlier then for architects—and for building users—this can only be a good thing. Once offsite schools are fully prototyped with the systems up and running, the cost per unit will be well understood. Proper contingencies will need to be in place for site-specific risks, but once out of the ground the cost of a school should and must be fully understood, right from early stage design.

The DfE push towards offsite is bold and ambitious. There will be challenges, both logistical—considering the lack of capacity within the UK’s current manufacturing base — and perceptual—because users are unfamiliar with MMC—but there will also be opportunities. The immediate opportunity for architects is to move into a modern way of making buildings and to capitalise on the potential for better designed, coordinated and finished schools. Long term, we should hope that there is a greater opportunity to use standardisation of learning spaces, and the efficiencies of offsite, to challenge and loosen the stranglehold of GIFA on school design. If we are building efficiently for the future with MMC, there must be opportunity to expand the important spaces outside of the efficient classrooms: space for collaboration, space for self-learning, space for gathering, and space for joy.