Need to deliver excellent student accommodation fast? Offsite construction is the answer

To maximise income, higher education institutions often need their accommodation to be built to tight timescales. Ian Ashley, regional director of modular building specialist Premier Modular, explains how that can be achieved without compromising quality.

Calls to improve the student experience in the UK means there’s a steadily growing requirement for significantly better quality accommodation.

One of the demands placed on contractors building student accommodation is for the project to be quickly completed, so it can be occupied throughout the whole academic year.

Early occupation provides a rapid return on investment and this can make a significant difference for an accommodation investment where academic year dates drive occupancy.

This all sounds so simple in principle but it can be far from the reality, thanks to the short timescales involved, the scarcity of skilled workers due to the upturn in construction activity, and rising costs.

Modular volumetric buildings now provide a cost-effective alternative to traditional build, and are enhanced with a number of significant benefits, including:
• Shorter construction periods – typically 50 per cent of a traditional programme.
• Less site disruption as up to 75 per cent of the construction is completed off-site.
• Fewer site deliveries, providing local environmental benefits.
• Reduced wastage, with many materials pre-cut to size as they’re designed through a digital manufacturing process.
• Less shrinkage and therefore fewer maintenance issues.
• Cost certainty, as it is a manufactured product.
• Programme certainty with minimal risk of disruption due to weather.
• Improved health and safety as the majority of the building is manufactured in a controlled environment.
• More energy-efficient buildings as construction quality is controlled through factory processes.
• Improved build-quality, delivered through the factory process with repeatable operations and robust quality systems.

One fantastic example of a modular scheme is The Foundry, a private 206-bedroom student accommodation block in Newcastle, recently completed by leading contractor Sir Robert McAlpine, after being commissioned for the project in June 2014 by Trust Estates.

Consisting of five floors, the building was designed jointly by the client, FaulknerBrowns Architects and the building manufacturers to gain the maximum benefit of off-site fabrication. Each en-suite student room was completed and signed-off by all parties in the factory. Apart from the en-suite accommodation rooms, the building also offered high-quality communal spaces for kitchen, laundry and sitting room facilities. A number of larger studio rooms were also designed-in, complete with their own cooking facilities and, again, these rooms were fully factory-finished prior to site construction.

The building was constructed from March 2015 at a rate of up to twelve rooms a day and handover was achieved in the first week in September. This allowed the client to market the scheme to their potential residents in time for the new academic year, thereby realising an immediate return on investment.


The majority of large residential, hotel and student accommodation schemes lend themselves admirably to the advantages of factory-produced modules as they benefit from efficient flowline manufacturing methods. To ensure this technology adds the maximum value available it is essential that the manufacturer is involved early in the thought process. There are sometimes restrictions in some areas that will affect the build-ability and therefore the manufacturer’s system knowledge is essential.

This early involvement reduces the amount of time the team spends redesigning a scheme by ensuring the most cost-effective factory solution available is used. Bedrooms or indeed whole houses can be fully factory-finished with all internal fittings, sanitary ware, heating and even flooring if the correct approach is taken initially. This collaborative approach maximises the benefits of off-site construction and can reduce time on-site by up to 50 per cent.

Where completion of student accommodation is time- critical, it is clear that modular buildings can provide the solution and build quality required to maximise a client’s return on their investment.