"I understand what our customers need."

Our operations director, Fran Cox, had an interview with Construction Manager looking at her plans for the future of Sunesis - below is the article as featured on their website.

Willmott Dixon and Scape’s pre-designed schools joint venture Sunesis has recruited a new operations head from a local authority. Fran Cox tells Will Mann why she believes offsite manufacturing is the future for the education sector.

Fran Cox was working in Bedfordshire Council’s education department when she brought in Sunesis, the pre-designed schools joint venture between Willmott Dixon and Scape, to deliver a new academy and primary school in just two years using its off-the-shelf concept.

As a client, the beauty of Sunesis is the simplicity of what they offer: clear timescales for delivery, flexibility where necessary, and certainty of cost

The experience worked out so well for all parties that she was recruited to head up Sunesis in the newly created role of operations director last August.

“Local authority budgets are tight, and Bedfordshire is no exception, and we had to deliver these two schools quickly, without much money, and with multiple stakeholders to keep happy,” Cox explains. “As a client, the beauty of Sunesis is the simplicity of what they offer: clear timescales for delivery, flexibility where necessary, and certainty of cost.”

Previously Bedfordshire’s head of school organisation and infrastructure, and a psychologist by profession, Cox feels there are significant advantages in education embracing offsite manufacturing – her key message in her new role.

Sunesis takes a “kit of parts” approach, as Cox puts it, using offsite manufacturing widely but mixing it with in-situ building methods.

“Our starting position at Sunesis is to use modular as much as possible,” she says. “Apart from the quality and programme advantages, it can also help where there are space constraints in the site; we’ve craned in modules from dual carriageways and from churchyards.

“We have a new scheme just come in where the classrooms will be modular, but the gateway building will be CLT. I can see a popular hybrid emerging where many elements of the school, including the classrooms, are volumetric, but the gateway or atrium – the ‘wow’ factor of the school – are built using a different methodology.”

Cox stresses that Sunesis will always pick the methodology that is right for the project. “Sometimes volumetric will not work,” she notes. “In those cases, we will still use other offsite methods where we can: floor cassettes, wall systems. Generally, we want to reduce wet trades as much as possible.”

Sunesis currently offers three pre-designed primary school concepts, the Keynes, Paxton and Dewey, which can be tweaked according to form entry size and customer requirements. Projects are designed by Lungfish Architects, a Scape subsidiary which is “well versed in the cost implications of changing a design”, says Cox. “They design from a budget rather than a concept.”

Projects are currently designed in BIM Level 1, though Cox says Sunesis is moving up to Level 2 at the moment.

“Modular suppliers generally design in BIM, notably Eco Modular, who are front runners in education,” she says. “We also want to use 4D BIM for programming, particularly for crane movements on modular projects.

Willmott Dixon has first refusal on all contracts, but as some schemes are quite small – for example, a one-class block for £250,000 – other Scape framework contractors such as Kier or Wates may be offered the work.

“Or we could go straight to a Tier 2 contractor like Eco Modular, depending on the project,” says Cox. “However, nine times out of 10, I think the main contractor expertise will be necessary for the groundworks and other in-situ elements.”

She acknowledges there is an education process to go through. “There are connotations about prefabrication, and at Bedfordshire we had to do a lot of work with stakeholders who thought we would be supplying temporary buildings, which education professionals have had quite enough of,” she says.

“There is also an issue about local supply chain spend, as most modular suppliers are currently from north-east England. But from a quality perspective, I don’t think clients will have any issue at all with the finished product that Sunesis supplies.” It plans to revisit projects two years after completion, to carry out a post-occupancy evaluation.

Since its first commission in 2011, Sunesis has completed 28 primary schools, plus 40 extensions, creating more than 18,000 school places and aims to deliver more than 7,500 by 2020. Its other local authority clients include Somerset, Isle of Wight, Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, Plymouth, Doncaster, Croydon and North Somerset. It is targeting rising demand in the sector, with the Department for Education forecasting last year that an extra 750,000 school places would be needed by 2025. The ambition is to lift turnover at Sunesis from the current £25m to £100m in three years’ time.

Although from a non-construction background, Cox is not fazed. “I don’t pretend I’m something I’m not, but I do understand what customers in this market need,” she says. “My job is about communication, building relationships, finding a common outcome and working together to get there. Being a psychologist helps with understanding people.”

Do you need to find solutions to your school places demand? Call our team on 07950 717 804 or email enquiry@sunesis.co.uk