Dec 10, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

The University of Essex goes modular

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Technological innovation has dramatically altered methods and practices utilised by construction firms in recent years. The University of Essex training centre site is a prime example of modern building techniques improving efficiency through off-site construction, early design integration, coordination and engagement.


With a student population of 10,500, the three-storey modular teaching centre includes 20 classrooms, fully-fitted WCs on each of the three floors, leisure facilities and circulation space for the students. Spanning 2000m2, the £2.9m build involved the use of Western Building Systems’ pioneering modular construction methods and off-site production processes.

Other key features of the new training centre included: glazed screens, full M&E as wells as uPVC A-rated windows and aluminium doors, the latter of which were manufactured by Western.

An unusual element of the project included the inclusion of a lift at either end of the building which went above and beyond current standards to provide a designated lift for fire-fighting purposes.

John McBride of ADP Architects, the firm commissioned by Western Building Systems to help design the building, said: “The client [the University of Essex] outlined specific requirements such as the mix of classrooms, square footage, ceiling height and other education-specific elements like electronic whiteboards, Wi-Fi and breakout spaces.

“It was important to the university that there was continuity with the rest of the campus so we matched internal screens and doors with those already in place in the surrounding building.

“The site previously contained a pre-fabricated student accommodation office which meant that central services like power and water were already in place. This was a distinct advantage when it came to preparing the site for installation.”

The project involved the construction of 72 steel-framed modular units which were produced at Western’s Mountjoy Road plant in Tyrone before being transported to Essex for installation.

Modular construction units consist of pre-finished frames that are produced off site, before being linked together to create streamlined building solutions. This form of construction allows for a greatly reduced programme in comparison with traditional on-site construction methods and brings with it a host of other advantages including dramatically less site activity, vehicular movements and a consequent reduction in CO2 emissions.

According to John McBride: “The main advantage of modular construction is the speed of construction when compared to traditional building methods. By constructing the modular steel frames off site, downtime, for example, due to weather is dramatically reduced – a real benefit when operating in the UK and Ireland.

“Designing a three-storey modular build was particularly satisfying from a professional point of view, as modular builds are often limited to two storeys. While the modules dictate design to an extent, it’s possible, with the right design and planning, to create unique and interesting-looking buildings, through the choice of cladding and roofing materials. For the university, we were able to introduce some interesting aesthetic features by adding canopies to either end of the building in order to guide the flow of students towards the two main entrance points.

Efficiency through early engagement

Early design integration was fundamental to ensuring value for the university. Commenting on the importance of early coordination and engagement Declan McCloskey, Operations Director at Western Building Systems, said: “Forward planning is important for any project when it comes to ensuring critical milestones are achieved on time and on budget.

“This is especially true with modular builds like the University of Essex training centre where smooth installation required constant communication between the off-site manufacturing plant in Tyrone and the site in Essex where sub-structures and site services were carried out.

“Early design integration included consideration of specialist fit-outs such as lift installations, interactive whiteboards and built-in projectors. This way, every element of the build was fully coordinated into the building fabric – preventing construction clashes down the line.”

Building benefits for the client

The benefits of modular builds are compelling. On average, they reduce the build programme by up to 50% through off-site construction capabilities – up to 80% of construction can take place off site. Beyond the obvious cost and time savings, off-site production causes minimal disruption on site; reducing on-site health and safety risks associated with traditional builds.

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