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'Flatpack' buildings

Off-the-shelf architecture may not be perfect but it makes construction of new-build schools quicker and easier

Off-the-shelf architecture may not be perfect but it makes construction of new-build schools quicker and easier

Pick your design. There's the traditional Keynes, the hi-tech Newton or the curvy, timber-fronted Paxton. Then select the number of classrooms before choosing from a range of colour schemes and throwing in a few extras - photovoltaic panels, or a sprung floor in the hall.

"It makes choosing a new-build school like choosing a car," says Bob Athroll of construction firm Willmott Dixon. "You pick your make, you pick your model, and then you customise."

There is growing interest in this kind of pre-designed school. The recent James review was critical of the bespoke schools funded under Building Schools for the Future, and advocated stock designs, mass production, and flat-pack methods.

"It certainly makes schools cheaper and quicker to build," says Mr Athroll, who says an off-the-shelf primary can be ready nine months after ordering.

Another advantage is reliability. Business Academy Bexley in Kent may have been drawn up by Sir Norman Foster's practice at a cost of pound;31 million, but is already blighted by leaking roofs, smelly drains and dripping taps. "You don't get problems like that if you're using a standard model," says Mr Athroll.

Not everyone is convinced. "Nobody should be forced to choose from a set menu," says Ty Goddard, director of the British Council for School Environments. "Of course, it doesn't make sense to fit bespoke toilets in schools, and I would welcome national standards on things like lighting, acoustics and ventilation. But quality design is important. We should be aiming to build individually designed schools in the most efficient way possible."

Pre-fabricated materials may be one way to improve efficiency. Many people still equate "flat-pack" with "slap-dash", but if the materials are good quality it can be an effective technique, reducing construction time. St Agnes Primary in Manchester was made from 20 lorry-loads of timber panels driven from Switzerland, then bolted together on site. At pound;6 million it wasn't much cheaper than a traditional school, but the result is a well- liked, high-quality building, put up with minimal hassle.

The problem with pre-fabs is that they work best on clear, level sites. Where a new building has to be constructed in a difficult space, they usually need a bespoke design. In any case, splashing out on quality designers and architects is not necessarily a waste of money.

The James review doubted whether school buildings had much impact on results, but many heads think they do.

"Our results have tripled in just three years, and I don't think that would have been possible without such a good working environment," says Smita Bora, principal of new-build Westminster Academy. "Our building allows us to offer a wide number of subjects, and makes it easy for staff to personalise their teaching. When a head and an architect work closely together, it can have a real impact."

The James review: key points

- Building Schools for the Future projects were criticised for being "too bespoke".

- Future buildings should be based on standardised specifications.

- Specifications should aim to raise quality, not just cut costs. They should be reviewed at regular intervals.

- More attention to be given to maintaining buildings and monitoring their condition,; James report: http:tinyurl.com3jefeop.

Original headline: The issue - `Flatpack' buildings - Schools `should be built from template designs'

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