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Built Fast to Last

15 September 2005

Modular buildings are increasingly become regular features of schools, hospitals and offices across the country as Jane Fenwick found when she visited Portakabin’s York factory where complex modular buildings are built and fitted out

FOR GENERATIONS OF SCHOOL CHILDREN, the term ‘temporary building’ conjures up unpleasant memories of classrooms that were cold in winter, hot in summer, and sited outside the main school block in some forgotten backwater. The experience of today’s school children of ‘temporary’ buildings is completely different. Most would not even know that their nursery, school classroom or additional toilets were not part of the ‘permanent’ school buildings built in the traditional way. The facilities inside and appearance outside is world away from the image of temporary classrooms that their parents remember.

Today, occupying ‘permanent’ buildings can be burden that reduces flexibility in fast changing business circumstances. Better building methods and materials, faster design and construction and their proven effectiveness have made ‘modular construction’ a technology whose time has come in an environment where business and wider society have to change much more quickly than ever - and then change again and again throughout a lifetime.

Conventional construction is expensive, takes too long and requires a host of skilled people from architects to bricklayers to complete. Sir John Egan in his reports, Rethinking Construction and Accelerating Change, started a revolution in construction methods and standards with the result that the benefits of modular construction fit with his targets for lower construction costs, completion on time and on budget, and with fewer defects. In addition, with construction topping the league in work-related deaths and injuries, constructing the building modules under factory conditions is much safer than the traditional process on a
building site.

Modular buildings have now moved into the mainstream. For example, when Breckland Council decided to build new council offices and council chamber following a ‘Best Value’ audit of its existing offices, it recognised that modular construction offered advantages of speed and price over traditional building. Located at the Guildhall in Thetford, Breckland Council needed to make better use of space, improve communications and be more cost effective. Portakabin’s Ultima building system provided a turnkey solution built to the Council’s requirements and meeting all permanent building standards such as Part L and the Disability Discrimination Act.

According to Breckland Council’s FM, Steve Harris, “The Best Value Audit showed we could vastly improve working practices and save between £500,000 and £750,000 a year by building a new head office that would bring all departments including environmental health, planning, economic development, HR and strategic management under one roof. Portakabin provided a turnkey building solution, working with us to design a building that met our exact requirements and doing everything from laying the foundations to landscaping the car park, gardens and central courtyard.”

As Robert Snook, General Manager of Portakabin’s sales division explained, “Today’s modular buildings are built to permanent building standards but happen to be in relocatable.” Speaking on the first floor of the Portakabin’s York HQ – itself a modular building with the look and feel of a traditionally built office - he explained how the market was developing. The company began with its PK16 building site accommodation building in 1961, and although it still supplies this sort of temporary relocatable building, its market has

Portakabin’s steel framed buildings are constructed in its 60 acre site outside York in four factory buildings. Under factory conditions, Portakabin builds and prepares to customer specification all its buildings in a working environment that is both six times safer and more pleasant than a traditional building site. The factory building process also enables buildings to be delivered on time, on budget, fully fitted out and virtually snag-free, contributing to reducing construction project time by more than half.

The steel frame modules come in a range of sizes from the massive Titan 36 – 67 sq m, the largest building module capable of being transported on a lorry, and Ultima 46 sq m and upwards, down to Portaloos 7 – 27 sq m. Customers specify the external openings and finishes, and internal fittings so that each module is delivered in a complete format ready for assembly on site. The waste produced by cutting out openings in external wall panels is recycled or reincorporated into the modular building process so effectively that Portakabin has cut is waste from three to one skip per week.

A key advantage of modular building construction is the ability to respond quickly to customer needs and to meet public policy objectives. For example, Portakabin’s Lilliput Nursery buildings and Children’s Centres have been developed meet the Government’s objectives for better access to pre-school care and education. The Government wants to increase the number of children’s centres to 3,500 by 2008, particularly to provide children and parents in the some of the most disadvantaged areas in England with affordable childcare and healthcare facilities and services. Lilliput Centres of 155 sq m and upwards come as stand alone buildings or as extensions to existing buildings, and since they take half the time of a traditional building to construct, they enable local authorities to start providing these services quickly.

In the education sector, Portakabin has been appointed sole supplier of modular buildings by Zurich Municipal, the UK’s leading insurer of school buildings. Typically schools need replacement facilities very quickly following arson attacks. At Avon Valley School in Rugby, when 95 per cent of the building were destroyed by fire, Portakabin’s Coventry Fire Centre Manager, Mark Fox quickly visited the school to discuss its requirements. After a two-week consultation and planning period, the final design and layout of the interim school was agreed. Over just four weeks, 142 Portakabin building modules were installed creating 44 classrooms, kitchens, dining hall, library, ICT suites, changing rooms and toilets for the school’s 1,000 pupils. The buildings are on hire for initially two years while a new and enlarged school is completed.

Snook explained that customers from all sectors are increasingly asking Portakabin to supply the modular buildings with all the equipment and systems required for the activities to be carried out within them. Typical is Avon Valley School for whom Portakabin supplied all the classroom furniture as well as climate control systems for the ICT suites, access ramps and fire and security alarm systems. Modular building also offer high standards of insulation and energy efficiency and they meet the requirements of the DDA.

In the health sector, Portakabin’s Yorkon division is responding to Government policy objectives to provide new purpose-designed independent treatment centres for the NHS as part of its drive to reduce patient waiting times. Amec has awarded Yorkon a £6m contract for a modular building solution for a treatment centre at St Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth due for completion later this year. The two storey modular building comprises 72 steel framed modules built and fitted out at the York factory. These will be transported and craned into position ready for final fitting out and completion of the external cladding.

The centre will provide a range of NHS services including minor injuries and nonemergency day surgery procedures in a building comprising theatres, an endoscopy suite, preparation zone, sterilisation unit, recovery bays, consulting rooms, reception and office accommodation.

Modular buildings are now a accepted form of construction, ideally suited for responding to fast development of nurseries, schools, treatment centres, hospital and offices – and also in the retail sector where Portakabin’s modular buildings are used for Tesco Express shops.

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