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Portable Classrooms - The Permanent Solution

In November 1993, the Florida Center for Community Design and Research, a research arm of the University of South Florida Master of Architecture Program, published a report of the Florida Department of Education, Office of Educational Facilities entitled "The Use of Relocatable Classrooms in the Public School Districts of Florida." This 148-page annotated report reviewed a substantial amount of existing literature and incorporated those independent conclusions with the results of questionnaires sent to facility planners, superintendents and teachers in each of the 67 public school districts in Florida, site visits to manufacturing plants and schools as well as discussions with principles, teachers and industry representatives.

The report investigated the use of portable classrooms as a cost efficient and educationally effective means of handling the on-going short fall of permanent facilities. The report focused on construction methodology, facility planning, the physical classroom environment including light, air quality, noise levels and safety issues, the impact on existing core facilities and a financial analysis.

Public school districts in Florida have long been a substantial user of factory built classrooms. While the survey and report have been generated in and by Florida, the analysis, conclusions and recommendations are of a much broader interest. There are important lessons in the report for all of us from user to manufacturer, from Maine to California.

Review of Existing Literature

The report identified numerous factors that coincide to create an atmosphere where portable classrooms can be the optimum solution:

  • explosive growth in public school enrollments;
  • forecast of continued growth for the foreseeable future;
  • the difficulty of forecasting intra-district movements;
  • dwindling growth in funding for new capital improvements;
  • slower growth in tax bases;
  • effective caps on school fund mileage rates;
  • declining state funding sources;
  • increased constituency reluctance to pass new school bond issues;
  • the need to house students during renovations, asbestos abatement or upgrading of existing facilities;
  • the introduction of new programs; and
  • absence of acceptable alternatives to accommodate students such as year-round classes, double sessions, re-drawn boundaries, changing grade-facility configurations and relocations.

The inherent characteristics of a portable classroom often make them the optimum solution. Portable classrooms are easily relocatable and offer school districts maximum flexibility. Portable classrooms are built in a factory and can be delivered and installed in a short period of time. The initial capital outlay to purchase a portable classroom is less than permanent site-built construction. Moreover, portable classrooms can be leased with funds drawn from an operating budget as opposed to a capital budget. Portable classrooms offer a greater degree of privacy and independence for students which fosters a strong group identity. The portable classrooms are physically separated from each other and from the core school and open outdoors which promote programs that use the outdoors. In addition, portable classrooms represent a cost effective method to increase or decrease space incrementally.

Disadvantages of portable classrooms in the literature review were found to fall within three categories. The first is lack of visual appeal or poor aesthetic quality. The second is perceived inferior building quality. The third is that over time temporary portable classrooms become permanent.

Poor aesthetic quality was attributed to several factors. Most permanent classrooms were solicited by public school districts based upon minimum specifications to meet code. Amenities were stripped ostensibly for the sake of economy. The theory was the cheaper the classroom, the smaller the initial cash investment. Aesthetics also suffered from poor site planning. Portables were often situated over parking lots or playing fields eliminating important space. Physical separation of the classrooms contributed to lost travel time to the core building, exposure to inclement weather and difficulty in maintaining discipline.

Compounding the perception that portable classrooms are visually unpleasing is the further perception that the buildings are constructed of inferior materials. Portable classrooms in Florida at the time of the study were built to the southern building code and the Florida Department of Education standard 6A-2. These are the same regulations which govern so-called conventional or site built buildings. Perhaps the perception of inferior quality is the result of what many people feel the portable classrooms represent. For many adults, portable classrooms are perceived to be the result of poor planning and are contrary to the image of permanence and stability associated with their childhood school.

The maintenance program of the user is critical to the useful life of the portable classroom. Preventative maintenance for HVAC systems and periodic inspection of roofs, door jambs and tie downs an dramatically extend the useful life of the classrooms. It is more often than not poor maintenance which contributes to the perception of inferior quality rather than the choice of building materials.

Results of the Florida Study

Based on information gathered from facility planners, superintendents and teachers in each of the 67 public school districts in Florida, the study found:

  • more than 16,000 portable classrooms in use (with some in every district);
  • 53% primary schools; 27% secondary; 16% other academic such as adult education or vocational; and 3% non-academic such as storage, maintenance or food service;
  • the average age of a portable classroom was 19 years ranging from new to 50 years old;
  • regular maintenance by a skilled crew was found to be far more important to the useful life of a portable classroom than age; and
  • the overwhelming reason to use portable classrooms was speed of delivery (35%) followed by shifting enrollments (26%) and the relatively inexpensive nature of the classrooms (25%).

The initial cost of a portable classroom was found to be between 36% and 77% of the cost of a site-built classroom addition. While less expensive at the outset, the critical issue was total cost of a portable classroom over life expectancy as compared to site built schools. Quite simply, "are portable classrooms a good investment?"

The Florida survey found portable classrooms to be a "good investment" relative to permanent construction if purchased (or leased) for a good price and properly maintained. The most compelling conclusion of the study, however, is that in light of continuing high rates of growth in enrollment levels and the expected weakness in the district's fiscal position, the use of portable classrooms will certainly expand in upcoming years. THE REPORT CLEARLY ESTABLISHES THAT PORTABLE CLASSROOMS ARE JUST AS EDUCATIONALLY EFFECTIVE AND COST EFFICIENT IN THE LONG RUN AS PERMANENT CLASSROOMS. In addition "[T]his study has found that the primary advantages of the portable classroom are its ability to provide flexible, suitable short-term accommodation to Florida's student population and its ability to provide that incrementally, in a timely and cost efficient fashion. . "

Since use of portable classrooms was found to be fiscally responsible, the report concluded with recommendations which address the primary complaint advanced against the classrooms - the lack of aesthetics. Better designs could extend life expectancy and make the portable classroom a "permanently used facility within the districts." Moreover, "the location of portable classrooms should be master planned at the time the architect is preparing the plans for a permanent school building ... included in this master plan should be the design of a covered walkway system that is integral to the design of the new facility being planned." Portable classrooms are a viable, cost effective solution to facility requirements and should be incorporated in the plans for all new schools. To be truly effective, portable classrooms should be a permanent part of facilities planning rather than an after-thought.