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No Place Like Home

Like 'em, hate 'em (or just tolerate them), portable classrooms are a fact of life for districts. Here's advice on planning for and using these modular units-and on thinking in new ways about their potential for learning

Population growth and shifts can sneak up on a district, causing administrators to seek portable classrooms, but nothing compares to a 250-plus mph wind destroying an entire district in seconds. When a tornado ripped through a small southern Illinois community in April 2002, destroying its lone school building, Dennis Holland quickly learned what it means to have an emergency need for space.

"I drove over and from the highway you could see a whole wall of the school was gone," says Holland, superintendent of Cypress School District 64. The storm had sucked out the school's windows, frames and all, and metal beams and bricks were everywhere.

The district's 100 or so students finished out the school year in a church as Holland got on the phone. "I did not want 20 individual trailers, but I didn't know what was available," he says of his search for a temporary solution. "I knew I didn't want to make do for two years until we had a [new] school."

Eventually he found a vendor to accommodate the district's needs, Resun Leasing in Fenton, Mo. Now the pre-K-8 grade district is housed in two comfortable buildings constructed by hooking several trailers together, side to side. The main classroom building, 125' x 60', has a center hall with four classrooms on each side, a computer room and a resource room. The other structure, 105' x 60', holds a lobby, office, teacher's lounge, lunch room and pre-K classroom. The rooms have eight-foot ceilings, tile floor and good lighting. From outside, Holland says, "You can tell they're portable, but they're attractive. ... It's home."

Call it What you Like

Portables, modular units, trailers, relocatables, demountables, bungalows, tin boxes. These temporary structures have lots of names, official and otherwise. And the need for them-usually due to population shifts or modernization projects-has grown.

In the past 20 years, modular construction, which includes both temporary and permanent structures constructed in a factory, "has been huge for education," says Barbara Worth, assistant director, public relations and policy at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Council of Educational Facility Planners International. "In a perfect world, [districts] want to build a permanent building. Unfortunately that's almost impossible today in most places." Lack of funding for new construction is a major culprit.

And, during the past decade, the trend toward portables has at least doubled, says Judy Smith, executive director of the Modular Building Institute in Charlottesville, Va. She's seeing a lot of double-wide portables being sold to districts wanting interiors to look more like regular classrooms. According to MBI's 2001 Commercial Mobile Office and Modular Building Industry Survey, a higher total percentage of double-wide portables have been manufactured than singles in the previous four years in the entire industry. (The education segment is about one-quarter of the industry, which estimates 2001 total sales at $5.33 billion.)

Portables are even more popular in warm places like Florida and Arizona, where many campuses have multiple buildings anyway. California, which once required districts to house 30 percent of their classrooms in portables to account for population growth, still has them in many districts.

Consultant Prakash Nair, who is president-elect of CEFPI's northeast region, says that portables "have often become the 'cop-out' solution for choice." However, he explains that they're "often the only solution in overcrowded districts when schools are put out of commission. ... Unfortunately, the modular portable solutions of choice, which are nothing better than glorified construction trailers, tend to stick around much longer than intended." The classroom space is typically too hot a commodity to give up.

Despite the individual circumstances and needs that cause a district to seek portable classrooms, many of the planning and implementation issues are similar. Here's a look at what to expect.

Take the Good with the Bad

Are portables perceived as a welcome addition to schools or is it just the opposite? Depends on whom you ask.

"A lot of teachers like the portables, and they almost fight when they will be put back into regular buildings," says Dave Peterson, director of operations at Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools, which houses about 24,000 of its 76,000 students in temporary classrooms. The teachers have better control over room temperature, they can team easily with the teachers near them, and "they kind of have their own niche," he says. Administrators in Las Vegas and San Diego also say some teachers prefer portables. "Then you talk to some who feel like they're in Siberia," says Pat Zoller, schools facilities planning coordinator for San Diego County Office of Education.

Peterson believes part of the reason portables are generally accepted in Mesa is that they've been the norm for a long time. He adds, "Students, my kids included, ... take on the attitude of the [teacher]."

Public perception also varies widely. According to Evan Major, superintendent of Shelby County (Ala.) Schools, his county is the fastest growing in the state, and the public is well aware that growth affects roads, bridges, sewers and parks-plus the schools. "Thank God as superintendent I don't have to fix the roads and bridges," he quips. Still, the community is more than happy, he says, about the district's plan to reduce its 150 portable units dramatically, as new schools are built through a state order to eliminate portables.

"I wouldn't say there's a negative perception of modulars in general," says Joe Vecchiolla, vice president of corporate communications for Williams Scotsman, a Baltimore-based modular building vendor. "You have negativity about overcrowding in schools, negativity about classroom reduction. We've got a pent-up frustration within schools."

With parents, the reaction to portables can be "anything from 'They're fine; they're just another classroom,' to 'How dare you put my child in a trailer!' " says Dusty Dickens, director of demographic zoning and realty for Clark County (Nev.) School District, which currently has 967 portable units, some with multiple classrooms. There are also safety issues, Major says, about the ability of the units to hold up in inclement weather after they've been moved around a district several times over the years.

Another concern is whether portable classrooms inhibit learning. "I don't think it adversely affects achievement at all," says former teacher, principal and superintendent Kathy Foster, who is now Clark County's director of instruction and facilities administration. To find out for sure, CEFPI is funding a research project at Georgia Southern University that compares student behavior, attitude and performance in portable and permanent classrooms. Worth says she's hoping the research will show that "the better the modular, the better the achievement."

Portable Progress

What characteristics does a "better" portable have? Besides efforts to keep up with the latest building requirements and offer more electrical and data outlets than temporary classrooms of yesteryear, Smith says that high-end portables have brick and other finishes on the outside and better carpets, tiles and walls inside. Many also have natural lighting now, says Worth, who adds that portables are "acoustically much better than they used to be." In addition, some vendors now have multi-story portables.

But on the design end, experts often cringe at the thought of portables. "Logic might tell you that it makes sense to use modular construction to meet exploding demands for schools in a cost-effective way," says Randy Fielding, an architect and editor of, an online facility planning journal and resource. "I believe that logic is wrong."

In fact, as head of an annual school design awards program, Fielding says he has returned the registration fees for modular designs. "They were so bad that I did not want to burden our hard-working reviewers," he says. "There isn't the design time devoted to portables that [is devoted] to fixed construction. Portables are not deemed worthy."

Fielding believes the structures aren't creating good learning spaces because they don't respond to the school campus's topography, views and community. "You might liken it to living in a trailer park. As much as we can make trailers that have all the same amenities we have in a house, in the end people don't want to live in them."

The problems include storage and lack of natural light, since many portables don't have windows, says John Poros, an associate professor of architecture at Mississippi State University and acting director of the school's Educational Design Institute. A few years ago, an informal EDI survey of portable classroom vendors found that almost all of the units were based on residential portable housing construction, stripped down for classroom use, he says. "They're not really designed in a way that's going to help education."

Nair adds, "The bottom line is that the problems with the solutions we see today can be attributed to a lack of vision and creative thinking."

Seek and You Shall Find

When shopping for portable solutions, administrators do, however, have customization options. San Diego's Office of Education conducts a bid process for different sized classrooms, and districts can choose upgrades such as landings and sinks, Zoller says. When MBI gets calls from schools, Smith tries "to encourage them that the building they need and want can be built."

But missing from the laundry list of options, says Poros, are built-in instructional materials other than chalkboards.

The "lease or buy?" question is one districts have to answer for themselves based on future population outlooks and costs. Buying a new portable, says Peterson, has typically cost Mesa about $50,000, plus $10,000 to $15,000 more for data infrastructure, electrical systems and other wiring. Then, every time a unit is moved within the district, it costs several thousand more.

And the process of moving a portable is tougher than it sounds; in Las Vegas, Dickens says every desk, chalkboard and other item inside must be removed and inventoried before a move. With one-third of the student population's families moving each year within the district, the costs of relocating portables to account for student shifts adds up fast.

Many districts use several vendors for portables. San Diego Unified School District used to buy all its portables, and they recently began building some of their own. In Shelby County, on the other hand, Major prefers to lease so they don't end up stuck with portables that are no longer needed. Worth says leasing seems to be the most common choice for districts.

Vendor maintenance contracts, which schools can get with a lease, are often overlooked as an unnecessary added cost, Smith says. MBI tries to help schools understand that the units need to be periodically checked for roof damage, leaks and other signs of wear and tear. "If you don't take care of something, it's definitely going to be a problem down the road-just like a home," she says.

Class in a Box

Where to house portable classrooms within a district is another decision that takes careful planning. Clark County has a year-round committee, representing maintenance, operations, instruction, purchasing and zoning, to handle portable moves, which typically number 300 to 400 times between June and September. "The committee ... has just accomplished miracles," Dickens says. Moving between and within semesters is also necessary at times.

"I think a lot of [San Diego County's] districts have used them for the ebb and flow of enrollment," Zoller says, so portables can follow a boom of students throughout their years in the district. Some of her districts even have schools made up entirely of portables. In these cases, administrators will contract with an architectural firm to place the units in a way that's conducive to learning. And the campuses tend to look permanent. "It's hard to tell the difference on a quick walk-through," she explains.

Districts might also modify units to create a better atmosphere. Outdoor modifications can include walkways and canopies to connect portables to each other or to the main building, or to guard against inclement weather. Landscaping, which districts might use to hide an unattractive air conditioning unit or a portable's base, is another option. Vecchiolla warns, however, that landscaping around some portables, especially older wooden ones, may violate the manufacturer's recommended use and increase the chances of mold, rot and infestations.

Mesa's modification efforts in bringing fresh air into its portables won two awards in 2002, from the Environmental Protection Agency and Arizona's governor. "We wanted to meet some of the standards in the industry, and we noticed that, when children have an environment where carbon dioxide levels [are] down," says Peterson, they have increased attention spans and better performance.

After studying possible solutions, administrators had ventilation systems developed that allow the portables to have fresh air when they're occupied, but that shut down at night and while students are out, at recess for example. Each vent pack unit cost about $2,000 and was installed on the air conditioning units, Peterson says. Now the district is planning to apply the energy-efficient system to its permanent buildings, as well.

Almost Endless Possibilities

When thinking about customizing portables, experts say, don't be afraid to go outside-of the box, that is. Vecchiolla's company, for instance, worked with Dell to offer districts an alternative to converting traditional classrooms into tech-enabled ones. The partnership created CyberSpaces, a new take on the modular classroom that comes equipped and powered with computers and software tools. Williams Scotsman also offers tech-enabled "smart classrooms" for schools that already have the hardware and software they need.

In terms of portable design, Fielding says districts should concentrate on how to best use the temporary characteristic. "Take a much greener approach to construction by creating space that is a terrific learning environment for five or 10 years," he advises. This can be more economical than permanent construction that must last for decades, when no one even knows what the approaches to curriculum and learning will be that far into the future.

Fielding offers these suggestions for making the most of portables:

? Help students and teachers housed in portables see the world. When sized and placed with care, windows can offer a view of trees, a mountain, or other green space. It beats a parking lot or no windows at all, even if it does make moving portables more difficult.

? Let there be light. Overhangs can be costly, but they offer control in natural light without glare. Direct/indirect lighting fixtures suspended from the ceilings, preferably ceilings that are 9.5 feet tall or higher, are best. “By reflecting more light off the ceiling, you’re getting bounced light that’s not reflecting off computer screens,” Fielding says. Although he’s never seen day lighting in a portable, he says these energy-saving lamps can make a huge difference in comfort for a small investment.

? Challenge vendors to design based on how students learn. Manufacturers “have the wrong client in mind when they talk about customization. They talk about it from the builder’s point of view,” he says. So who is that client? “The client is not a school district, the client is not a contractor, the client is not the government. The client is the student.”

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor