Surge in Demand for Prefabricated Classrooms Amid Escalating Raac Crisis in English Schools

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Classroom (Getty images)
Classroom (Getty images)
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The Peterborough call centre of Algeco has been experiencing a continuous stream of phone calls in the past few days.

Ever since the Department for Education created upheaval last Thursday by issuing warnings about the hazards associated with aerated concrete in 156 schools, school nurseries, and further education colleges.

Algeco, the modular building rental company, has been flooded with requests for information from schools urgently seeking temporary classrooms as the new academic year begins.

The crisis has brought attention to a lesser-known aspect of the construction industry. Modular buildings, which encompass everything from repurposed shipping containers to custom-designed portable cabins, have gained popularity in major infrastructure endeavours like the new HS2 rail project.

In these projects, modular structures can be swiftly assembled and disassembled. Furthermore, they are becoming an increasingly favoured choice for various types of constructions, spanning from budget-friendly hotels to Starbucks coffee shops.

“We have definitely seen an increase in inquiries over the last few days,” said a spokesperson for Algeco, formerly known as Elliott, which since 2021 has been part of the Canadian investment giant Brookfield.

Algeco said it had received “numerous inquiries” from academies, schools and main contractors, particularly in south-east England. The company declined to disclose its prices, but said that it was holding them steady despite booming demand.

“We expect to receive more inquiries over the coming days and weeks via the CCS [Crown Commercial Service] modular buildings framework,” it said.

At least 156 schools have been found to have potentially dangerous “bubbly” concrete, known as Raac (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete), and “hundreds more” schools could be affected by the safety issues, the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, has admitted.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, has indicated that a comprehensive list of affected schools in England will be made available “prior to Friday.” He mentioned that action has already been taken at 52 schools, either by securing alternative accommodation or by reinforcing ceilings where necessary.

Raac, a cost-effective lightweight substitute for conventional concrete mixes, was utilized in public buildings across the UK from the 1950s to the 1990s. However, by the 1980s, it began to exhibit signs of deterioration. Last month, the Health and Safety Executive declared, “Raac is now beyond its service life and is susceptible to sudden and unexpected collapse.”

In the realm of modular construction in the UK, Algeco and Portakabin, owned by Shepherd Group, are prominent players.

Algeco emphasizes that their temporary modular classrooms for hire create “well-lit and spacious learning environments,” with the option to stack modules up to four stories high. These modules are prepared offsite and can be furnished as needed. Typically, customers should expect a wait of approximately three weeks for a single temporary classroom, with double classrooms and entire teaching blocks requiring even more time to prepare.

Construction analyst Stephen Rawlinson, at Applied Value, said the concrete safety issues will boost “the likes of Elliott and Shepherd … at a time when there is already strong demand from infrastructure projects, such as HS2”.

“But they [portable buildings] cannot be suddenly made to appear and are not on a yard waiting to be delivered,” he said. “Repurposing shipping containers may also be needed, they are easier to transport and alter. Containers will be easy to transport because they are only 3 metres wide. People will put insulation and windows into them, and they’ll go on the back of a lorry.”

The concrete crisis has emerged at a time when there is already a growing demand for portable cabins, driven by projects like the HS2 railway and the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset.

The Construction Leadership Council had scheduled a meeting on Tuesday to discuss how the construction industry should address the Raac crisis affecting school buildings.

Equipment hire companies, such as Speedy and Ashtead, are expected to see increased demand for items like heaters for temporary classrooms. Some schools are resorting to using steel poles, known as acrow props, to stabilize their buildings.

In addition to temporary classrooms, a number of schools are being constructed as modular units in offsite factories and then transported on lorries, following the Department for Education’s £3 billion modular framework established in 2020 to expedite construction.

However, Rawlinson cautioned that while modular construction is part of the solution in the long term, it’s not the complete answer, citing safety concerns. Several schools have had to shut down because a DfE review uncovered structural integrity issues, making them less resilient to high winds or heavy snowfall. Buckton Fields primary school in Northampton, constructed by Caledonian Modular, recently became the third school to close due to such concerns.

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