Access to schools with high-quality classrooms and safe learning environments is something every parent wants and every child needs. And as our education needs rapidly expand, the modular classroom looks set to play a leading role in our learning environment, write Dr David Heath and Dr Tharaka Gunawardena from the University of Melbourne.
In the state of Victoria alone there are 1547 government schools educating more than 600,000 students. Our population is increasing rapidly, with Victoria forecast to grow from 6.3 million to around 10 million by 2051. This fast population growth is accompanied by the need to develop cost effective solutions that deliver more schools to educate our future children.
To keep up with demand, the Victorian Government is making an unprecedented investment in school infrastructure, including the roll-out of world-class prefabricated modular classrooms.
Modern, modular classrooms bear little resemblance to the old style ‘portables’ that many former students from decades past might remember enduring over the years. The new generation of modular classrooms are permanent structures built to modern building practices. They are bright, adaptable to different configurations, and well insulated against the elements and noise from outside.
Because they are not constructed on site, they are also more sustainable – reducing construction waste by up to 40 per cent relative to an in-situ build. And there are further benefits of a factory build which include improved worker safety, removing the risk of delays due to bad weather, and a better working environment, resulting in a higher quality build.
The Australian Research Council Training Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing (CAMPH), led by researchers at the University of Melbourne, is improving construction technologies like these in real-world applications, including classrooms.
The way in which modular classrooms are manufactured depends on the level of sophistication of a given factory. At the most basic level the method is similar to what is found on a conventional building site although there is improved safety for workers, better working conditions, higher quality workmanship, reduced waste and the risk of inclement disrupting project schedule is removed.
The more advanced factories have moving production lines and make extensive use of ergonomic aids for workers, similar to what is found in the automotive industry.
At the beginning of the process bulk deliveries are made of structural steel and timber members, insulation, wiring and plumbing, air conditioning, internal and external cladding, floor coverings, cabinetry, and even door and window assemblies.
The degree to which each module is finished when it leaves the factory on the back of a truck varies among manufacturers. The more work done in the factory, the less work and reduced installation time required onsite. A panel of 15 companies manufacture the modular school buildings, including CAMPH industry partners Fleetwood and Prebuilt.
The site installation works are typically outsourced to contractors, although manufacturers generally have a team onsite to assist.
The Victorian Government is delivering 100 modular school buildings across Victoria over a four-year period assisted by BHA Project Management, a consultancy providing design and project management to the construction industry.
When classrooms are constructed on school grounds, the excess noise and dust can disrupt students’ learning experience. On-site construction also introduces safety concerns around the delivery and storage of building materials and site construction activities. Modular construction virtually eliminates these risks.
This is where modular construction is a natural fit for school projects, with up to 95 per cent of construction occurring offsite, reducing on-site activities to weeks rather than months.
Building the prefab schools of the future (Pursuit University of Melbourne)