In 1989, I had my first experience with modular school buildings.

Every Monday, my year-seven classmates and I would trudge out of the main building and up to Room 47 of our school in Melbourne’s outer-east for Period 1 French class. As though it had been an afterthought, the portable had been shoved into the back corner of the school near the least-used of three entrances.

The room was dark, dreary and lacking in character. In winter, it was cold.

That experience contrasts with the more recent one of pupils at Altona Primary School in Melbourne’s South West. As part of Victoria’s Permanent Modular School Buildings Program, the school’s new $880,000 library offers a light-filled, playful area with ample space, comfy and colourful furniture, new carpet with a palette of colours and design patterns, fresh paint and a split-system air-conditioner. Externally, a unique shape; varying, complementary and bright colours; and use of natural timber give the building a warm and inviting feel.

Welcome to the new world of contemporary modular school buildings.

Victoria is leading the way. Through the Permanent Modular School Buildings Program program, the government is replacing 100 existing school buildings which are old and which may contain asbestos with new ones which are being delivered using prefabrication.

Thus far, 50 buildings have received funding across 47 schools. Of these, 15 have been completed and a further 35 will be delivered by June 2019.

Victoria is not alone. Last year, NSW invited the building sector to develop flexible, prefabricated classrooms which can be constructed quickly and can serve multiple purposes and use a variety of construction products.

Nick Strongman, CEO of construction project management and consultancy firm Sensum, is delivering the buildings under the Victorian program. Strongman says prefabrication has evolved to the point where the modular industry can deliver architecturally designed buildings which are comparable in quality to those constructed using in-situ methods.

A challenge, he said, involves associations with the portables of old.

“Everyone can relate to those portable classrooms that the majority of Australians attended school in,” he said.

“(But) In the last 10 years, there has been a shift in the way that industry has responded to innovate and to deliver projects which are more suited to 21st century learning.”

According to Strongman, much work has gone into ensuring that modular buildings deliver output of comparable quality to in-situ construction. As part of the Victorian program, Sensum is working with Melbourne University to test temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels within buildings. Modern portable classrooms also come with a building management system. This can turn lights on or off according to the level of natural light in the room or switch the air conditioning off when rooms are vacant. To reduce operational costs, all buildings are fitted with LED lighting.

He says the benefits of modular involve faster delivery and reduced need for on-site labour. This in turn means less disruption for schools and improved site safety.

Whereas a traditional construction program might involve on-site activities for up to 18 months, Strongman says this can be reduced to six to eight weeks if prefabrication is used.

According to Strongman, opportunities for prefabrication should be identified early in projects during concept design. This should be accompanied by open dialogue with consultants and contractors.

This is important, he says, as constraints surrounding transport mean that modules which are not specified to the optimal size can be expensive. Where early and open consultation occurs, designs can be adapted to reflect the most efficient arrangement for modular construction.

Strongman says there are still challenges. Since prefabrication is new and public sector agencies are generally not accustomed to delivering projects in this way, off-site construction can be seen as entailing greater levels of risk compared to in-situ buildings. As well, there can be challenges arising out of standard procedures in contracts and procurement.

Much effort, he said, involves promoting the benefits to groups such as school councils and principals who face less disruption and noise during construction. As well, work has been undertaken to de-risk many of the issues involved in procurement for public sector clients. This includes concerns associated with insurance and paying for materials which are located offsite.

Throughout much of Australia, use of prefabrication on school building projects is growing.

If done well, this should deliver comparable quality buildings with less disruption for students.