Modular Schools: Portable Classrooms Aren’t Always Temporary

Portable classrooms have long been used as a quick fix for overcrowding. As technology has advanced, however, schools are using modular buildings in place of traditional buildings.
Image source: Flickr CC user TownePost Network

People often think of portable classrooms as an unfortunate temporary solution to overcrowding in schools: quick and cheap, but far from desirable. These prefabricated buildings still don’t get much respect. What pops into mind is a long trailer hauled onto the property. Soon the floor will sag and kids will be stuck in a dimly lit, cramped space with poor ventilation. At least, that’s often the way parents react when they hear their kids will soon be taught in one.

But technology has improved. Districts around the country are using portable or “relocatable” classrooms in increasing numbers. According to one survey, more than 250,000 classrooms are in portable buildings across the country. While many districts still consider these a temporary fix to conventional buildings, a growing number of districts don’t view their portable buildings as temporary at all.

Modular Buildings Can Serve Many Needs on a School Campus

Modular buildings are typically pre-made in a factory and then installed as one unit or in pieces on a school campus. They can serve as classrooms or even as auditoriums, cafeterias, libraries, and labs. They can even be custom made. They can be temporary and highly portable, or they can be permanent structures on slabs.

In Los Angeles, for example, a 50,000-square-foot elementary school was reputedly installed in 166 days using pre-fabricated buildings. At a district in Snoqualmie near Seattle, the school’s 59, 1,000-square-foot portable classrooms are designed to withstand winds of 100 mph, and the walls are reinforced with cement-board siding. While this school’s portable classrooms do not sit on concrete slabs, they have been designed with thicker floor supports to keep the room from bouncing and heavy insulation to keep out the weather, according to a local news report. In this school’s case, the decision to go with portables seems to be working out. Teachers reported that they found the experience no different than teaching in a regular classroom.

Numerous companies now make pre-fabricated classrooms. All of them tout the same benefits on their websites. Cheaper construction costs and rapid construction times are the main benefits. They also say their buildings offer good lighting and ventilation. Some are made of steel and concrete, and they are reputedly as sturdy and fire-resistant as traditional buildings.

According to the industry, modular technology has improved so much that a modular building can be indistinguishable from a traditional building. However, the quality of portable buildings varies widely, and a district gets what it pays for. Some of these buildings, for example, are made with cheaper materials, are manufactured and assembled in a factory in four days, and then loaded on a truck.

Problems with Portable Classrooms

It’s not hard to find news accounts of school districts that have run into problems when they relied heavily on portable classrooms. Last year in upstate New York, for example, a district’s portable classrooms wore out in less than 15 years. The floors were sagging and moisture and mold got into the walls. The district planned to demolish and replace them at significant cost.

In Greeley County, Colorado, a school district with overcrowding in 23 schools leaned heavily on modular buildings, but the district was running into problems with the buildings. One of the leading issues was security. The superintendent didn’t feel comfortable putting the youngest students in modular buildings. That district estimated it would cost $20 million to replace all of them.

In Beaverton, Oregon, nearly half of the school district’s 209 portable classrooms are more than 20 years old. Some of the roofs leak when it rains. The small windows that run along the sides of some of the portables don’t open, causing poor ventilation. The building staff reputedly prop the doors open with a broom to air them out.

Modular Buildings Aren’t Necessarily Cheap

Another issue is cost. Although portable classrooms can be cheaper and faster to open than traditional, ground-up buildings, well-built portables aren’t necessarily cheap. In the Snoqualmie district mentioned above, the two-classroom modular buildings cost $100,000 to be installed. The previously mentioned school in New York estimated that it would cost $250,000 per unit for a suitable portable building.

Still, some believe that modular building techniques are going to become the standard for schools. A San Francisco-based developer has a contract to build 250,000 square feet on 15 different school campuses in the South San Francisco Unified School District. The company prefabricates the components and then installs the pieces on campus. It claims the buildings are 40 percent more energy efficient than the state requirements.

Other schools seem to be finding success by mixing modular units on their campuses with traditional buildings in new construction projects. For example, one private school took a hybrid approach to building its campus. It added a two-story modular classroom building, but then traditionally built a gymnasium and administrative office buildings. This approach enabled the school to open the classrooms early while it was still finishing the other buildings.

Schools Should Weigh Their Options Carefully

The point of all this is that schools now have an option to use modular buildings when planning a new campus or expanding their schools when buildings age and become overcrowded. These are options, however, that they should examine with caution. Using modular buildings can cut down on the time and expense. However, districts need to thoroughly evaluate the products. A school needs to determine whether the modular will be a quick fix or a permanent building.

Most importantly, a school should never make any hasty decisions. The decision to go with pre-fabricated buildings should come after weighing the costs of the modular buildings with those of traditional, ground-up construction. A district should also talk with a real estate consultant who can analyze their existing real estate assets to help the district create an achievable plan.

If your district is feeling a space crunch and considering expanding, you don’t have to go it alone. You can get a thorough analysis of your existing assets from a consultant whose community values align with your own. Contact DCG Real Estate today to learn more.