Prefabs are increasingly embraced in the Kiwi residential sector for their affordability and speed of build, but schools have been slower to adopt the latest technologies in this area, possibly remembering the post-war era classrooms of years past. This is now changing. Both Waiheke High School and the adjacent Te Huruhi Primary School are being redeveloped by Ignite and Decmil Construction NZ using different forms of modular prefab construction that create warm, durable classrooms in less time than traditional methods.

Waiheke High will be only the second school in New Zealand where buildings have been constructed using energy-saving Formance structural insulated panels (SIPs). Its new performing arts block will be the first school building to have an entire building envelope, wall and roof, made from the panels. While the up-front cost is slightly higher than traditional materials, the ongoing energy use for heating and cooling is halved, making the panels an excellent sustainable choice in the longer term. Consisting of a foam core between layers of strand board, the panels will provide top-notch thermal insulation to create a better learning environment at any time of year.

Panel technology is now standard for new schools in the US and has been used in Europe for more than four decades. Whereas once a prefab classroom meant shivering through lessons in a very basic, poorly-insulated temporary structure, modern prefabrication is very high quality, built to last, with greater earthquake resilience.

Perched above the Waitematā Harbour amid green fields, both Waiheke High School and Te Huruhi Primary School have idyllic coastal views and a semi-rural character. The primary school offers a Garden to Table programme that teaches children to grow and cook fresh produce, along with a bilingual unit, Nga Purapura Akoranga, that acknowledges strong Maori connections with the island. On Waiheke they have a saying – “It takes an island to raise a child” – giving a real insight into how central a part of the community the schools are. It was therefore essential their design have a true Waiheke feel.

However, the schools’ outstanding setting came with significant challenges. Replacing the old primary school, which was experiencing water-tightness and structural issues, could have caused significant disruption to students during construction and demolition of the old structures. Meanwhile, Waiheke Island’s limited pool of labour, being accessible only by boat, made it necessary to design buildings that could be made off-site, shipped in and assembled quickly. The materials and construction therefore needed to be even more cost-effective and speedy than usual, while creating a durable new school that is built to last.

Prefabrication was the ideal solution. Using prefabricated panels will result in a 20-30 per cent saving on construction time, causing less disruption for the Waiheke community and the students of both schools. Meanwhile, the pre-nail frames and roofing being used to construct the new primary school are New Zealand-made, so greater demand for these panels will support a growing local industry and lead to even greater efficiencies.

Different thinking was required to design the schools using modular technology, requiring Ignite’s architects to consider carefully how each module would slot together to create the final look. The decision to rebuild Te Huruhi Primary from scratch beside the existing school gave Ignite a completely blank canvas with which to create a new school that would perfectly fit the community and the landscape. Ensuring the scale of the new buildings was appropriate for the surroundings meant a single-storey construction with large windows to maximise views of the sea and surrounding fields. It was important that the design gave students the opportunity to connect with nature and the outdoors, the reason many families live on the island.

As this shows, prefabrication doesn’t mean buildings without character. Historic pieces of the primary school’s original buildings will be incorporated into the new space to provide continuity, such as the sculpture currently housed at Nga Purapura Akoranga. Construction will begin on the schools in early 2019, with completion due in 2020. This timeframe is made possible by the modular construction, which allows similar pieces to be built quickly off-site, and slotted together with bespoke touches that fit each school’s character.

It’s been truly exciting to show how the prefabrication technologies used in the housing sector can be adapted to new applications. Waiheke Island has long had a reputation for sustainable, environment-led design, which makes it a fitting location for these projects, but it is to be hoped that many more schools across New Zealand can benefit from the cost and time savings offered by modular and prefabricated construction. Far from being a temporary fix, prefabs offer a lasting solution that provides schools with reduced ongoing costs while ensuring students have a quality, well-insulated environment in which to learn.