A new school is always a cause for celebration. But when the school represents a first in how to cut school building costs by 30%, it is really something to shout about.

At Oakfield Primary School in Rugby, a collaboration between local authority controlled company Scape and Willmott Dixon is ripping up the rule book for procuring new schools. Scape and Willmott Dixon have invested in a suite of standardised school designs under the brand of Sunesis to drive down building costs for cash-strapped councils, and the first example in Rugby is due to handover in October half term.

The 1950s era Oakfield School needed a new home as it’s expanding, with some classes already squeezed out into temporary accommodation. The initial plan was to split the school into infants and juniors, relocating the infants into a 1960s built pupil referral unit which shares the site with the school and a nursery, once it had been refurbished and extended at a cost of around £2m.

However, the county did its sums and realised that by finding a little extra funding and going down the Sunesis route of using a pre-designed, set price school, it could afford a new one-form entry school; in this case the £2.2m Sunesis Keynes model.

The business case

“With the original budget, we were looking at extending and altering the current building,” says John Harmon, Assets Strategy Manager at Warwickshire County Council. “But analysis showed it wouldn’t be suitable for conversion into a 21st century school premises – a refurbishment option would have meant both a poor learning space and the running costs would have been high.

“Rather than try and ‘make do and mend’, for a little bit more we got something much better – a modern flexible teaching and learning space, which minimises its impact on the environment both now and in the future. And we got it quickly too which saved money.”

With Sunesis being delivered by Scape - a public procurement organisation - the council could contract directly through it without first tendering via OJEU. As Gavin Mitchell, Project Manager at Warwickshire County Council, explains: “From the county council’s perspective, knowing what we were going to get in terms of cost and quality combined with the speed were key. This became a year-long project rather than a two-year project which is the timescale we’d have faced if we followed a traditional route. Getting to site was incredibly quick; we did not have to appoint our own design team which gave us a saving up front. Plus the fixed price of a Sunesis school provided cost certainty, unlike a traditional contract where you get variations and changes. That’s important in these financially austere times.

Willmott Dixon is the only contractor on Scape’s national framework for major projects which means local authorities purchasing Sunesis buildings can avoid the time and cost of tendering while still meeting legal requirements. Of the four primary school designs developed for the Sunesis range, the Keynes is the entry model. Oakfield’s new building – which will be home to the infants – will be around 1,200 square metres with seven classrooms, a central hall and ancillary rooms.

Combined effort

The decision to go for something different at the school was made in July 2011. From then, it was a combined effort by Warwickshire and Willmott Dixon to secure planning permission – which remarkably was achieved by December. Works commenced on site in February the school hands-over during the Autumn half term.

However, the Oakfield site wasn’t school-ready. Situated on the side of a hill, it contained the pupil referral unit which had to be demolished first and services diverted. Plus the site was ‘made’ - or pre-developed - ground

Steve Elkin, Development Director for Scape and brand manager for Sunesis, says that dealing with the issues thrown up by sites is a major challenge for successful standardisation. “The problem is two fold. Firstly, we had to recognise that a one size fits all approach will not work, hence why Sunesis has a range of designs suitable for normal sites, noisy sites, and restricted sites. The range enables a client to find the one most appropriate for their needs. Secondly, the designs themselves incorporate features to minimise the impact of sites.”

The secret to meeting a tight schedule is to get the construction team engaged as soon as possible and place orders with the supply chain quickly. Willmott Dixon managing director in the Midlands, Peter Owen, says, “We didn’t have to delay for another six weeks trying to finalise the detail. We already have one in place that had been developed to a high standard by our architects.”

Saving money and achieving more for less is catching on, since Oakfield started on site, Southampton City Council and Isle of Wight have both bought Sunesis schools and more are going through planning. In the current austere times, it has really captured the imagination.

All you need to know about Sunesis

1. How did Sunesis come about?
Sunesis was collaboration between Willmott Dixon and Scape in response to the Sebastian James Review which highlighted the need for greater efficiency in school building projects with the objective to drive efficiency through standardisation. So far Sunesis has seen the development of four primary school models, one secondary school model and a leisure centre model.

2. What price range are the Sunesis models?
There are four primary school designs with each developed for a different type of market. The four primary school models are;
• Keynes is the entry level primary school starting at £2.2m for a 1 Form Entry, which rises to £3.6 for a 2 form entry with a Nursery.
• Dewey is a multi-storey option which has been design for constrained site. This is available from £4.4m to £5.8, from 2 Form Entry to 3 Form with a nursery.
• Newton is a single story 1 Form Entry option, with an enclosed courtyard where pupils can play in a safe and secure environment. Newton is available from £3.3m.
• Paxton is available as 1.5 Form Entry and 2 Form Entry, and can have a nursery added if required. Starting at £3.9m, Paxton is constructed using a glulam system and is ideally suited for locations which are demanding a high level of sustainability.
• Mondrian is the secondary school model, currently available in 900 pupil or 1,050 pupil variants and prices start from £11.5m.

3. What minimum reduction can Sunesis offer?
Our base product has targeted a 30% reduction by efficiently designing the models. The process is dependant on ensuring the standardised approach is adopted throughout the project delivery. Sunesis is about personalisation of the space, not customisation. Customers are encouraged not to amend the building as this adds costs to the process.