Designing and building a European university in 10 months was quite a feat. The fact that a hastily assembled team managed it while under sporadic shellfire was even more impressive …
Europe's newest university was officially opened this week in the war-torn Tetovo region of Macedonia, close to the border with Kosovo.

The 3000-student University of South-east Europe was conceived to help bring unity and stability to the region, where despite a three-month-old peace deal, violence still flares between ethnic Albanians and the government. The university has an innovative £10m campus, with 34 buildings, that was designed and built in only 10 months while shells exploded close to, and even on, the building site.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which plays a central role in monitoring the truce, proposed the university in 1999. Its energetic former high commissioner on national minorities, Max van der Stoel, persuaded the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian intelligentsia to support the idea. A foundation, set up in Zürich and project-managed by the May Group, brought in funds from the OSCE, western governments and private foundations. A greenfield site on the outskirts of the regional capital, Tetovo, was donated by the Macedonian government.

In June 2000, while the academic curriculum was still under development, the May Group approached modular construction firms across Europe. The Viennese firm Elk, which has built its reputation on timber chalets prefabricated in factories in Austria, the Czech Republic and, most recently, Ireland, won the tender. Surface Architects, a youthful London practice, was chosen as designer.

Elk's prefabrication skills played the key role in delivering the campus at speed and with minimum risk of disruption. Surface Architects, meanwhile, supplied the radical design that was seen as vital in projecting a progressive image for the new institution.

The flat-pack modular construction method restricted buildings to two or three storeys, made up of wall panels with the easily-transportable dimensions of 12.5 × 2.6 m. Surface Architects turned this constraint to its advantage by planning the campus as a network of straight, narrow buildings that criss-cross at crazy angles.

One ribbon of buildings comprises residential accommodation, another contains administrative offices, and five are end-to-end classrooms.

The layout is not as random as it seems. It answers what the client representative, Andreas Kleiser of the May Group, calls a prime requirement. "The layout," he says, "should break down departmentalism; we needed an integrated academic environment that was also open and transparent."

Accordingly, the buildings intersect to encourage interdepartmental communication.

At the same time, they partly enclose irregularly shaped spaces that contain larger communal buildings, including the library, cafe and multi-purpose hall, lecture hall and computer centres. The "ribbon" design also projects outwards to suggest dynamic growth. "The campus occupied a lot of space, and the Albanians liked that," says Kleiser.

As far as the image of the new university was concerned, Elk's chalet style was out. "We wanted something that looked modern and European," says Kleiser. Surface Architects responded by designing the blocks with sweeping monopitch roofs, a modern pattern of windows and a bold colour scheme, in which entire buildings are painted white, blue and yellow – colours carefully chosen for their lack of political connotations.

The tiered lecture theatre even makes a brave attempt to free itself of its modular roots by tilting upwards from its base. However, the architects' desire to dramatically cantilever the structure into thin air was curbed by Elk's value engineering, which introduced visible steel props.

After approval by the foundation's donors, a contract was agreed on 1 March for handover of the entire campus by October. Elk claims to have taken this rapid programme in its stride. "We love the speed," says franchise manager Thomas Rieder.

Elk used its standard construction methods for the project. Wall, floor and roof panels incorporating rendered external skin, plasterboard linings, windows, doors and electric cabling were fully prefabricated in the factory. Meanwhile, site infrastructure, roads, foundations and concrete bases for the buildings were constructed by local contractors under the direction of the German civil engineer Kittelberger.

Transporting the prefabricated panels in 260 lorry-loads through several war-torn Balkan countries was less straightforward. "There were interruptions because of conflicts in the region," says Rieder. "While we were waiting for the situation to clear, we had to store prefabricated panels next to our factory in Austria and protect them from the weather. In fact, we had a whole university in our backyard."

On site, the modules were erected and fitted out by 12 Elk staff and local labour. "We are pretty good at training people to erect our buildings," laughs Rieder. Transporting the panels and erecting the 34 buildings on site took just four months to September.

It was wise decision, as there was frequent shelling in the area and, in March, a couple of stray mortar shells hit the site, injuring two local workers. The site was then closed for two weeks but Elk was able to make up for the lost time.

The university opened to admit its first 1300 students at the end of October – right on schedule.