A new prefab school extension could help the government hit its target for 2500 extra classrooms. And the first one now is in place, providing a bright and stimulating environment for 5- to 11-year-olds in Colchester.
In March, the Government announced that it was investing £150m in the coming year to provide more than 1000 new classrooms and 2500 new teachers. The aim was to reduce class sizes in primary schools to no more than 30 pupils.

The same month saw the opening of the first of a new breed of prefabricated classrooms, tailor-made to meet the requirements of the National Curriculum and built for 10-15% less than the cost of the average conventional classroom extension. It does not take a genius, or even David Blunkett, to see how this can help the government deliver on its promise.

The new classroom, the Akademy, is manufactured by Portakabin at its works in York, and has evolved from the work of Cottrell and Vermeulen Architecture, best known for its innovative nursery buildings in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex.

“About three years ago, we were getting asked by a lot of schools to do little nursery buildings,” recounts Brian Vermeulen. “But they were in places like Clacton [in Essex] and had no money. With two hours’ travelling time and a budget of about £60 000, it just wasn’t viable. Not only could we not build the building for that, but we couldn’t maintain our level of site supervision.”

The only way to meet demand and maintain standards was to turn to factory production. Working with Mark Dudek, an architect and researcher into children’s environments at Sheffield University, they toured hundreds of schools to study teaching practices and needs. They then approached Portakabin, which had already been thinking about extending its range of permanent structures to educational buildings.

A design for a nursery school – the Lilliput – was adapted to fit Portakabin’s modular system and the first prototype was erected in spring 1998. This has now been modified to suit older children and the demands of key stages one and two (5- to 11-year-olds). The first Akademy classroom opened at St Teresa’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Colchester, just before Easter.

The classroom design is a collaboration between Cottrell and Vermeulen, Dudek and Portakabin’s own design department. “Cottrell and Vermeulen were biased towards the kids, but what we had to do was to meld their ideas with our construction methods,” says Stephanie Leeman, Portakabin’s new products engineer. “As the people responsible for the budget, we’ve had to be quite pragmatic.”

Particular attention has been devoted to flexibility, durability, storage, safety and building to a scale suitable for children. Whereas the Lilliput classrooms are geared more towards play, with room for up to 60 children, the 12 × 9 m Akademy is slightly larger, to provide a more flexible environment.

As well as an open area for general teaching, the classroom features a space for reading, a computer station, toilets, a walk-in storage cupboard, an entrance area with coat pegs and cubby-holes for PE kits and lunchboxes, and a wet area for science and art, which opens out on to a sheltered veranda. “Within the working day, the teacher would have sessions with children in small groups on the floor, as well as with the whole class focused on the teacher, so we tried to incorporate spaces that would break the group down,” explains Dudek.

Although a reading space is a government requirement, teachers usually have to create their own area in a corner of a cramped classroom, or even conduct reading sessions in the corridor. And children rarely have anywhere to keep their possessions, so bags clutter the floor and clothes are strewn over the backs of chairs.

In the Akademy, the main classroom is a neutral space that can be customised by the teacher. White walls are dominated by a bright checkerboard blue and yellow built-in cupboard unit with high cupboards for the teacher and low cupboards where children can keep their own materials and feel that the space is theirs.

Windows, too, cater for both heights, and a long vertical window providing views out across the playing field can be covered with a blind when the teacher requires the class’ full attention. With commendable attention to detail, the designers have also provided wires across the ceiling and painted pinboard walls for the all-important artwork displays.

The quiet area for reading, which is enclosed on three sides, can be partitioned off from the main classroom with a fireproofed cotton curtain. A suspended ceiling, a low bench with liftable seat for storage, and a child-height window enhance the feeling that everything is on a child’s scale.

Low-level windows are non-openable, as one of the main causes of accidents in schools is children running into open windows, not to mention the problem of children jumping out of them when the teacher’s back is turned. Other child-specific safety features include non-slip flooring in the wet area, radiators with low surface temperature, and a smooth transition between interior and exterior floors.

Thankfully, the architects have resisted the temptation to disguise the factory-built building as something it is not, and have maintained the clean-cut rectangle of the steel-framed module. Long slit windows emphasise the sort of modernist regularity one is not surprised to find from a duo who met while restoring Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille.

Although the modular classroom is standardised, there is some scope for variation in the floor-plan and materials. Portakabin is experimenting with a range of cladding materials, including polycarbonate, perforated metal and translucent acrylic.

At St Teresa’s, the exterior is clad in cedar boarding in some areas (a cunning way to hide pipework) and left bare to show the colourful plastic-coated steel walls in others. Funding permitting, the front veranda will eventually be extended to the main building on one side and to a second classroom on the other, forming a covered walkway down a central spine.

Headmistress Mrs Hurdidge is especially pleased with her new classroom. “It provides a variety of learning environments and the facility for children to work outside. I particularly like the fact that all we needed to provide was the tables and chairs.”

With a bigger budget, Dudek would like to see a timber floor, and more guidelines on classroom furniture, which he finds “pretty appalling”. Vermeulen would like to do more landscaping around the building, include more storage.

Portakabin’s sales team reports that it is swamped by enquiries, doing about two quotes a week, and the Lilliput has already won a Civic Trust Award and been chosen as a Millennium Product by the Design Council. Whether these accolades will be enough to convince local education authorities that the classrooms really hold the solution to overcrowding remains to be seen.

Why prefab? Why now?

Prefabrication seems to come around in 30-year cycles. We are now clearly entering one of these. Prefabrication strikes several chords – Sir John Egan’s exhortations for lean production, automotive factory- based processes to replace unreliable site labour, and even a desire to look beyond today’s conventions. All three are volumetric or modular systems, the most comprehensive form of prefabrication in which entire 3D rooms are assembled and fitted-out in the factory before delivery to site.

Construction and cost details

  • With a 10-year structural guarantee, Portakabin’s Akademy system is eligible for state funding as a permanent building.
  • Three volumetric modules make up one classroom. Each module measures 12.054 × 2.940 m, is 2.7 m high and is supplied ready decorated and with fixed furniture in place.
  • Site works at St Teresa’s took four weeks, with just a day to crane in the three modules. After that, all that was left to do was fit the suspended ceiling, connect up the plumbing and electrics and make good the joints between modules. Short construction time allows installation to take place in the school holidays, at weekends, or in the evening.
  • Total delivery time is three or four months.
  • The Akademy has a one-hour fire performance. Sandwich panel walls and roofs with Plastisol-covered steel outer sheets have U-values of 0.43 W/m2°C and 0.38 W/m2°C respectively.
  • The quoted price for a 106 m2 classroom is £67 000 (including design fees but excluding foundations, external works, service connections and VAT), working out at £632/m2. Costs for classroom extensions compiled by Davis Langdon & Everest average £700/m2 (calculated on a comparable basis but excluding design fees).