Beyond the ‘Classroom in a Can’
“A college is not a trailer park. It should not look like one…My first teaching job was in a prison, and the rooms were nicer then these. If you were all excited about going to college, wouldn’t you be disappointed?”
—Butte College President Sandra Acebo
Over 3 million students at colleges, universities, and K-12 schools learn in modular trailers, known for poor air quality, structural inadequacy, and inferior aesthetics. Extensive research on the $2 billion a year temporary classroom market reveals an industry ripe for an influx of innovative design and strategic thinking. Inspired by successful academic precedents, pre-fab housing experiments, futuristic thinkers, and temporary environments, MKThink advocates revolutionizing the industry through both inventive design and organization of the fragmented market to capitalize on economies of scale.
Schools or Trailer Parks?
Colleges, universities, and K-12 schools are strained by changing priorities, demographics, and economics. They increasingly require temporary space solutions to meet the demands placed on the built environment. Typically these temporary spaces are accommodated with modular trailers. The modular industry, driven by aggressive price competition, is limited in its ability to create breakthrough design solutions. The results are learning environments of mediocre quality that impact as many as 3.15 million students annually.
At the university level, approximately 450,000 full-time equivalent students per year utilize ‘Classrooms in a Can,’ and the demand for temporary space solutions is increasing (Figure 1). Enrollments at postsecondary schools will grow by 12 percent between now and 2012. Because of building development lag, the increasing costs of permanent spaces, and the need for flexible space
to accommodate shifting populations, we project the need for temporary space will increase by 15-20 percent in the same time period.
K-12 educational demand for modular units is also striking. More than two million students attend classes in 80-85,000 modular classroom units in California alone. In 1991, the California Auditor general estimated that 72 percent of all California school sites had portable classrooms. And until 1998, the State required that at least 30 percent of classrooms be portable. Helping
to meet that requirement, Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Corona, CA, built in 1997, is made entirely of modular units.
This market is currently supplied by a large number of manufacturers–smaller companies employing 50-150 people with revenues under $30 million per year characterize the modular classroom industry. These providers have reached an equilibrium of cost relative to quantity and have little incentive to innovate. Even though there are many manufacturers of temporary classroom environments, there is little differentiation among the standard products.
Expenditures on modular trailers on college campuses in the U.S. exceed $350 million per year (Figure 2). By way of comparison, this equals 15 percent of all new library book purchases and 15 percent of all spending on additions to existing buildings. An additional $1.65 billion per year is spent on modular units for K- 12 schools, for a total annual expenditure of $2 billion.
Life – Cycle Costs
While modular units have a life-cycle that may be considered half that of ‘traditional’ or ‘permanent’ construction, their costs on average are only 25 percent or less of the traditional facilities’ construction costs and 15-20 percent of the total project costs of a permanent facility. It is clear that both K-12 and postsecondary institutions rely on these savings.
Modulars aren’t intended to be long-term solutions for temporary space needs. According to our research, however, 76.5 percent of facilities planners who intended to use them for the short term ended up using them longer then expected. Over 79 percent of respondents reported using modular classrooms for longer than 2 years.
Our original hypothesis was that modular classrooms fail as temporary space solutions. In fact, according to our survey, these units are filling the gap for both K-12 and postsecondary educational institutions. But the standard unit provided is of the
lowest common denominator. Typical modular classrooms are structurally inferior, particularly susceptible to earthquakes and hurricanes. Students in modular units often suffer from poor air quality due to improper ventilation and higher levels of exposure to toxins. Finally, temporary units are ugly—priorities of time and cost-savings win out over aesthetics, leading to what Ken Tanner terms ‘slum architecture.’ Thus, significant opportunities to provide anything more than basic enclosure are missed.
Modulars are typically used for people-centered activities, like classrooms and offices. Seventy percent of those surveyed used modular units for both classrooms and offices. Most units are under 1600 sf, and when configured for instructional space, many (35.7 percent) provide 21-35 seats. As such, they are high occupancy spaces in which environmental and aesthetic issues should be of central concern.
While most university facility planners surveyed were satisfied with modulars across a range of features, none were very satisfied with any particular feature. Modulars are thus considered adequate, but not excellent, in any particular category. They serve a need, but because no other alternatives exist, planners settle for them as mediocre temporary space solutions.
In addition, a large gap exists between the planners’ and the end users’ perspectives. According to our findings, 75 percent of planners feel modulars serve the educational goals for which they were deployed. In contrast, 60 percent of faculty avoids modular classrooms (when given a choice) for aesthetic, environmental, and functional reasons.