Modern methods of construction could help protect design quality

19th August 2020

Sheppard Robson Partner James Jones, writes for Buildoffsite on using Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) to build schools, stating that it's inevitable—in fact, it’s happening already—and answering the question: what does this mean for architects?

Read the full article here.

Some architects already have some experience with MMC schools—whether 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 some suspicion in the profession that using MMC for schools represents a move away from quality design towards utilitarian, nondesigned, bulk-buy educational spaces.

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.

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 he 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 onsite 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 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.

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.