Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Britco Provides Solution to Shuttered Schools in Nova Scotia

Dropping enrolment and shuttered schools hang like dark clouds over politicians and school boards alike in Nova Scotia.

But a Bridgewater resident says there is a way to keep more schools open.

Peter Simpson says modular schools may be the solution.

In the past five years, Lunenburg County has had to close schools like Wentworth Consolidated Elementary and Riverport and District Elementary. And talks are underway about closing Pentz and Petite Rivière elementary schools, which could potentially add to the pile of vacant buildings in the South Shore region.

Also, last year the Cape Breton Regional School Board announced the closure of 17 schools.

When schools are closed after a school review the buildings are turned over to the title holder — the municipality, the school board or, in cases of P3 schools, the developer.

“The owner then has the responsibility to make decisions about the building and property,” the province said in an emailed statement.

In Riverport’s case, the school was returned to the Municipality of Lunenburg, and nothing has been done with the building since.

“What used to be assets for the community . . . have now become liabilities,” said Simpson, former CEO of the Greater Toronto and Greater Vancouver Homebuilders Association.

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They put model modular homes — built in factories and moved into a space when they’re finished — on display at home shows to showcase their unique designs and practicality.

Instead of taking a break from building during the cold winter months, construction can continue throughout the year in an indoor, climate-controlled environment.

Many construction companies are now using modular home designs for schools. First, the building’s core is built (this could include the office space and maybe the lunch room). Then the classroom wings are built to extend off that.

“When the enrolment drops you can remove those units,” he said in a May 9 phone interview, “and take them where there is a . . . need.”

For example, if there is a school with low enrolment in Bridgewater, the province could take off a modular wing and move it to a school in Halifax with more students.

Britco Construction, a B.C. company that specializes in building modular offices, homes, hotels and classrooms, built Watson Elementary in Chilliwack, which has eight modular classrooms. What makes it unique is that it was designed to allow for the removal of four classrooms a few years later when the school’s enrolment dropped.

Declining enrolment is often the reason given when school boards decide to close a school.

Paul Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting, thinks there is a long-range planning issue with school building in Nova Scotia, and schools have become twice the size they need to be.

He wants to see small schools built in the centre of communities.

“They shouldn’t be Ontario-designed models imposed on smaller Nova Scotia communities,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

But even some Ontario school boards are implementing modular construction.

Flowervale Public School, located in York Region School Board in Toronto, is a modular school with a brick core. Bennett was a school trustee on their board from 1989-97.

The school was built, as many modular homes are, to last up to 35 years.

But when student enrolment began to decline, the board decided to repurpose the building in 2006. It’s now called Giant Steps: Autism School and Therapy Centre, and serves greater Toronto.

Bennett admitted that not all modular schools are particularly appealing. Some prefab designs look similar to a school portable, although others look like state-of-the-art buildings.

The cost of the building usually depends on the size and the materials used.

The Chronicle Herald asked the provincial government if modular construction is being considered.

“We currently have not used modular construction in our schools, but we look at any option that was both cost effective and met the needs of the students and community,” said spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn in an emailed statement.

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