Architecture: School prefabs get the designer touch

Two architects are spearheading the return of the reviled made- to-measure building. By Nonie Niesewand
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TEMPORARY BUILDINGS have long been a familiar sight on the educational landscape, offering affordable and practical solutions to cash-strapped education authorities faced with ever-increasing demands on ever-diminishing funds.

Affordable and practical they may be; beautiful they are not. These functional prefabricated structures, raised off the ground on concrete blocks, have all the aesthetic appeal of those immobile mobile homes in seaside caravan parks.

But a young and enterprising architectural practice, Cottrell & Vermeulen, is setting out to change this image and attempting to add "stylish" and "child-friendly" to the list of adjectives used to describe the next generation of school prefabs.

Richard Cottrell and Brian Vermeulen have designed prefabricated modules for nursery and primary schools, which have been developed by the doyen of prefabricated building manufacturers, Portakabin. The first nursery built using the system, called Lilliput, has won a Civic Trust Award and the concept has been chosen as a Millennium Product. "Significant achievements for an idea which was born out of frustration," Richard Cottrell explains. "We kept getting contacted to provide nurseries but were never given a sufficient budget to provide a decent building. We got annoyed at having to turn down the work, so we decided to come up with a way of meeting the demand."

The architects approached Portakabin with the idea of purpose-built prefabricated units for nurseries, and the company was interested. The architects then worked with the educational adviser Mark Dudek and the textile designer Rosalind Farley to come up with a brightly coloured, flexible, modular classroom design for 15 to 60 pupils, which was friendly both to children and to the economically challenged education authorities.

"We tried to provide an environment for children - bright colours, good space, low benches and windows at their sit-down level - which was also practical to teach in," says Cottrell. The architects decided to put the buildings firmly on the ground to avoid the temporary appearance of being up on blocks, and designed a series of rain screens for the exterior to give an impression of depth, effective weather protection and increased client choice.

With the design completed and Portakabin enthusiastically behind the project, Cottrell & Vermeulen - who were aware of the "prejudice against this type of building" - were then faced with the task of persuading a client of the advantage of taking the prefabricated route.

Bozena Laraway, headteacher of St Alban's Roman Catholic Primary School in Harlow, Essex, was that client. She had worked with the architects at her previous school and approached them again when funding of pounds 50,000 for a nursery class became available. "We ended up having Lilliput because the architects had the idea, and I was very brave. It was a new concept and Portakabin sometimes frightens people off, but I visited the factory and was very impressed," she says.

Once she had made the decision, the process of installing the building was carried out quickly, conveniently and with minimum disruption: "I arrived one morning to see a huge crane outside the school and I thought, `Oh no!' - but the building was already in place." Laraway continues to have no complaints about the new nursery:

"The design is attractive and the space is good. The teacher is very much at home and the children like it. It is colourful, but otherwise it looks like a normal little building." She is now considering using the Academy system - also designed by Cottrell & Vermeulen for Portakabin - for some new classrooms and plans to visit the first newly completed Academy building at St Theresa's Roman Catholic Primary School at Lexden, near Colchester.

From Portakabin's point of view, Lilliput and Academy represent a radical departure. According to the firm's creative writer, Stephanie Clint, they are the "first market-specific" buildings it has ever produced. Indeed they turn the whole concept of Portakabin as an inherently all-purpose building "on its head".

What places Lilliput and Academy very much in the Portakabin tradition is the emphasis on the two cornerstones of practicality and speed of construction. Their prices, which start at only pounds 50,000 for a 15-children unit, rise incrementally with the amount of government funding available for pupils - "a hard-headed approach to economics".

"Because so much of the work is done here in York," says Stephanie Clint, "we spend as little time as possible in the potentially dangerous situation of building with children around. The structures can be put up in the early morning before children arrive, or over the weekend when they aren't there."

Education is not the only sector where prefabrication is making a concerted bid to overturn its battered image. Charged by the Government to drive down costs while pushing up standards, the construction industry is embracing prefabrication as its potential saviour. Two residential projects at opposite ends of the social scale in London typify prefabrication's increasing comeback.

In Hackney, the housing charity The Peabody Trust is building an entirely prefabricated social housing block, while in Battersea, prefabricated bathrooms are being craned in to millionaires' apartments at Montevetro, a glamorous riverside building designed by Richard Rogers.