A Suffolk college’s pioneering innovation park will be built by the students, for the students

Douglas Field, Chair of New Anglia LEP and Sarah Bowers, Project Manager for the project at the laun

Douglas Field, Chair of New Anglia LEP and Sarah Bowers, Project Manager for the project at the launch of the Milburn Innovation Park project - Credit: Archant

A project which is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK will see students get first hand experience of the construction industry, without having to leave the comfort of their college campus.

West Suffolk College has just opened Milburn Innovation Park on its campus in Anglian Lane, and while it may at present merely be a big grassy field, it will soon be where the students themselves get their hands dirty constructing ten building ‘pods’ in a cul de sac formation.

The pods will demonstrate all different types of construction, ranging from traditional skills, clay lump, lime plastering, flint work, medieval timber frame, and thatching, to modern methods such as modular construction.

Project manager Sarah Bowers explained that the new park enables the students to get “practical, hands on” experience of the course they’re doing, so when they step into the world of work, they will be “more confidant and prepared” for what comes next.

“Before this, the only way the students would get this kind of experience is when they have actually left the college and get their first job,” she said. “At the moment, they’re working in workshops building brick walls and bits of buildings, but they’re never actually constructing a complete building, and they’ve never had to rely on each other’s skills to get it right. A building only gets built by a team, so it’s important that our students come to understand that for themselves.”

About 350 students will get involved at various stages during the project, and not just those studying the more conventional construction-related courses. “We are using craft students and professional students too, so students will be writing risk assessments, designing buildings, planning and costing things, as well as constructing the buildings,” said Ms Bowers.

The project, which has been two years in the making, is being funded with £115,000 from the Skills Deal programme by New Anglia LEP, in collaboration with lead employer Morgan Sindall and New Anglia Building Growth Group. But Ms Bowers admitted “it’s challenging” in some cases to get additional funding from the industry itself, which is facing a number of challenges: construction output figures published today by the ONS that show the UK construction sector declined by 0.2% in the October 2018 compared with September 2018.

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More than 9% of the UK’s construction workers are from the EU, rising to one third in London, and with Brexit round the corner, there is a pressing need to recruit more British construction workers.

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) director of external affairs. Sarah McMonagle, commented: “The future is still looking uncertain for the UK construction sector because the Government has set out plans for a post-Brexit immigration system that would severely worsen the skills shortage. The Government has said it will limit the number of low skilled workers entering the UK from the EU and further afield. This would include thousands of tradespeople, including bricklayers and carpenters, and these roles are ones that the construction sector relies on.”

Schemes like the Milburn Innovation Park are designed to plug this skills shortage, as well as to combat the UK construction industry’s myriad of other challenges such as low productivity, lack of innovation, growing levels of public discontent about build quality, and wider drivers for change such as the Grenfell Inquiry and technological advances.

The need to teach students the new technologies being deployed by the industry has been factored into the project, and one of the pods is earmarked for modular building, a construction method that involves first constructing sections away from the building site. Modular building is gaining momentum in the industry, thanks to companies such as the Suffolk garden building supplier Zedbox. “We’re doing really up to date stuff that really clicks together,” Ms Bowers explained. “We’re also trying to cover everything from the heritage side, such as clay lump and medieval timber framed buildings. We have a lot of listed buildings in Suffolk, so we really need those skills too.”

Douglas Field, chair of New Anglia LEP, has supported the project from the outset. “It helps with the skills shortage, it takes digital involvement too and will introduce new training in Building Information Modelling (creating and managing digital information about a build.) It’s very important that students get to learn these skills,” he said. “It should help to get people excited about the construction industry too.”

Councillor Gordon Jones, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills speaking on behalf of Suffolk Local Authorities, a joint funder of the New Anglia Skills Deal Project, explained that the project was created in direct response to needs identified by local employers.

“Local Authorities across the county recognise the importance of training and progression for our residents moving from education, and as existing employees, this type of hands on, employer-led project helps students of all ages gain the important skills and experience to improve their prospects and strengthen our economy,” he said.

Other construction innovation centres in our region

In August, the garden building company Zedbox opened a 5,000sq ft research and development centre a five minute drive from their current production facility in Thurston.

Plans have been drawn up for a new construction innovation centre, I-CONSTRUCT on Springwood Drive Industrial Estate in Braintree, to help attract investors, developers and innovators.