Interserve, the international support services and construction group, has signed a £13.65 million contract to construct a new academy in Leeds, which is facilitating a cost saving of over 30%. It is the first to be built using the new PodSolve concept, which uses innovative 'pods' to create a 'great school environment' for pupils.

The E-ACT Leeds East Academy is being built in partnership with E-ACT and Leeds City Council with Interserve employing architects Maber Associates, Arup and pod manufacturer Norwood to complete the design. The academy will have up to 1100 pupils, 300 of whom will be 16+.

The ‘pods’ concept represents the perfect solution for schools wishing to refurbish or build new premises because it can be tailored completely to their requirements, offers a truly competitive build cost and shorter installation time.

The solution, created over the last eighteen months and developed by Interserve, Maber and Norwood, has created a new school concept that addresses many other design dilemmas. The key differentiating component is a pod that maximises the use of daylight though the building to create warmth, but which also has natural ventilation, allowing air to pass out through the ceiling and air to flow in through the walls at low level.

The insulated panels also offer excellent U values, and the panel thickness can be increased or decreased to meet specific requirements. Acoustic challenges have been resolved by creating perforated end walls which absorb sound with acoustic glazed solutions to the front of the pods. All power and data have been accommodated as part of the off-site construction brief by utilising wire ways within the panels and the ceiling planks. The feeds for the light fittings are also buried inside the ceiling plank unit giving a totally flush, clean surface to the lid and inner faces of wall panels. All service connections are ‘plug and play’ to each unit.

The panels are designed as stand-alone demountable units, giving the client the ability to increase or decrease the pod size in-house without major disruption of services and core activities. In essence, a very functional space has been created with the ability to grow and shrink to suit trends. The inner space is ambient for temperature, light and very quiet. The space can be private or open, depending on working trends.

The E-ACT Leeds East Academy accommodation is set to provide a benchmark for future school building programmes. As well as providing high quality teaching areas, it will include leading edge information and communication technology, and provide opportunities for the local community to use its leisure and other facilities. Personal learning spaces will be complemented by arts, drama and music studios; the establishment will feature high quality catering and sports facilities; and lots of open spaces will all contribute to a hugely positive learning experience for the academy’s pupils.

Principal Helen Lane has been closely involved in the project. She comments:

"We originally had £19m of BSF money that was reduced to £13m following the post education budget reviews. We looked at the options provided by refurbishment of the existing buildings and by building a traditional school, and clearly the most intelligent way to go forward was to use the new concept building, which offered us so many opportunities that the other two options didn't. I've been able to work closely with the architects to plan the building round our new curriculum, and we've been able to build a great school environment, with a very tight budget, in a very short space of time."

A highly unusual advantage of this building concept is that if, in the future, the premises is to be closed down, the entire school can be stripped out and resold to another organisation, thereby creating a commercial opportunity for the owner.