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Wednesday23 July 2014

Technology on the move

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Gollifer Langston’s eye-catching mobile classroom for Camden education authority uses a mix of technologies more usually employed in space or at sea.

“It’s landed,” says Mark Langston, director of Gollifer Langston Architects, referring to the oblong grey pod looming in the grounds of Haverstock School in Camden, north London. While it may at first look like some strange spacecraft, it in fact arrived by a rather more mundane medium — delivered two weeks ago on the back of a flat-bed lorry.

That is not to say that it is not unique. To the contrary: the £400,000 pod — named Brain Cell — is a prefabricated classroom created as a prototype mobile space for teaching information and communication technology (ICT).

Made in Oxford by coachmaker JS Fraser, its construction has more in common with road vehicles than buildings, but also draws on technology from the maritime and processing industries.

Sharing information

The intention is that the classroom can be moved around by lorry to other school sites in the borough when required to help promote ICT skills in a highly visible way.

The idea was prompted both by the Classrooms of the Future initiative launched in 2001 by the Department for Education & Skills and by the need for better ICT facilities in schools. Recognising that many schools, especially ageing, former board schools, would have difficulty installing sufficient ICT facilities in their existing fabric, Camden Local Education Authority decided to develop a classroom that was temporary, demountable and transportable.

Working with structural engineer Michael Hadi Associates, Gollifer Langston came up with a concept for an expandable classroom capable of providing all the ICT equipment required, from an 84-inch (2.1m) LCD screen to film editing gear.

Designed to house 15 students working on cross-curricular projects, the classroom is small enough to fit the 2.5m-wide, 9m-long maximum dimensions for loads on a conventional flat-bed lorry. Once at its destination, it can be expanded, growing in width and opening to create an entrance and a stage for performance.

With its own plant and server room at one end, the classroom is designed to go anywhere. All that is needed is a dock with sufficient power and communications access.

Next came the tricky bit — converting the concept of a transportable and moving building into reality. For that, the client and the design team had to look outside the traditional construction industry to the world of coach building.

We’re looking at something that’s a real hybrid of engineering, coach building and architecture

“We were looking at something that’s a real hybrid of engineering, coach building and architecture,” says Mark Langston. “The technology it uses is more closely related to vehicle building than to conventional construction technology.”

So they teamed up with specialist coach builder, JS Fraser. The firm is used to designing complex mobile facilities formed from up to six vehicles for Formula One events, and was unfazed by the challenge of expanding structures, jumping at the chance to work in a different field.

“Hydraulics is all normal stuff for us. The only difference is that it doesn’t have any wheels,” says Greg Field, who led the project for JS Fraser. “We love a new challenge. Anything that makes you wonder ‘How was that done?’ we relish.”

It was also the company’s first chance to collaborate with independent architects and engineers. The project was a true collaboration, one that involved sharing information and breaking down traditional roles within the design team, according to Arup associate building services engineer Duncan Campbell. Campbell was particularly struck by JS Fraser’s use of frequent prototyping both during the design process and for offsite construction.

“They build a prototype, whereas we’re used to producing drawings, then signing them off,” he says. “It’s a very rapid cycle: you very quickly see the effect of your design, and because Fraser is so used to building in this realm, the firm knows what works. But it was very willing to try new ideas.”

JS Fraser sourced a steel substructure from a chassis manufacturer and then built up the classroom structure using steel to give a slim profile in order to maximise the internal space within the fixed volume. This is clad in powder-coated aluminium and insulated with MultiPro TS250 by Actis, an aluminium insulation used for spaceships.

Inside, the classroom is lined with perforated bespoke birch ply panels and has a Dalsouple rubber floor. Light is admitted through glazed door panels at either end, and through translucent roof panels with integrated louvres, sourced by Arup from Vision Control.

Compact air conditioning


Air conditioning was a challenge since the systems usually specified for buildings would be too big and noisy for such a small structure. So Arup borrowed from the maritime industry, specifying a more compact air-conditioning product called Cruisair, more often found in luxury yachts.

But what makes the classroom really different is its mobility on site. When it is installed, it is first raised on four hydraulically operated legs — to allow the lorry to drive away— and is then lowered down to the ground.

At the flick of a switch, the hydraulics running the length of the classroom floor activate to expand its width by 1.5m. A further hydraulic flourish is the opening up of the side when this is required to form a stage.

At the flick of a switch, the hydraulics in the floor activate to expand its width

The entrance is created manually, by lifting up a canopy and lowering a ramp, with banisters and decking stored inside the structure when it is being moved.

The mechanical widening of the classroom created challenges for Arup because the cabling required extra protection compared to that installed in the static conditions of a conventional building. The solution was an Igus energy chain to give caged protection to the cabling, which JS Fraser had used before for similar purposes.

All manufacture and prototyping apart from spray painting took place at JS Fraser’s main Oxford site. This was done at a facility a few miles away, giving the chance for the classroom to take a little test run on the back of a lorry.

The completed classroom will have a large LCD screen and eight flip-down workstations for tasks such as film editing and music production. When the stage is unfurled for performances, built-in facilities on either side provide external lighting and a sound system.

Green power

As well as plugging in to the power totem, the classroom has its own back-up batteries. These will be supplemented by a 500mm by 500mm photovoltaic panel and a 500mm-diameter wind turbine, both mounted on a 6m-tall pole adjacent to the classroom pod.

The energy produced by this off-the-shelf hybrid system could be used as a back-up in case of power failure. A monitoring unit in the classroom shows students how much energy is being generated by wind and solar power.

The architect hopes that this overtly different form of building will also energise the attitude of students to using ICT facilities.

“Because its form is different, it can be more informal, and people have the opportunity to be a bit more enthused,” says Langston.

The classroom is now being fitted out with furniture and readied for use at Haverstock. The intention is that it will move to several locations over the course of a year.

After such a long gestation period Gollifer Langston is hoping that this kinetic structure will have other uses outside education, and that the prototype pod will be the first of many.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Given it's application to a program requiring portability and inspiring creativity, the chosen approach seems to be relevant and delightful, not to mention an interesting expansion of the architectural pallete through use of technological transfer. It would be interesting to learn of the expected design life span and whether the design team forsee this technology as being suitable for adaptation to housing.

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