Modular classrooms have become a necessity for many school districts across the country. According to the Modular Building Institute, about 260,000 classrooms across the United States are in “relocatable” buildings that were partially or completely constructed in manufacturing facilities and are intended to be reused multiple times at different sites.
Portable classrooms offer several advantages. They allow school districts to deal with fluctuating enrollment quickly and cost-effectively. Since most of the construction occurs off-site, portable classrooms are easy to build. They are less expensive than traditional school buildings, and they can often be purchased with funds from operations and maintenance budgets, rather than going through the bond-approval process.
Traditional modular classrooms have limitations. They often have poor ventilation, excessive noise, uncomfortable temperatures, low levels of light, and high concentrations of formaldehyde.
Several companies have recently begun creating portable classroom buildings that address these shortcomings. The new green buildings have energy-recovery ventilators, no or very low levels of volatile organic compounds, better daylight, energy-efficient window glazing, LED lighting, and other features. Modular classrooms sometimes have structural materials exposed, which reduces materials costs and also allows teachers to explain how the buildings were constructed and how they function.
The nonprofit SEED (Sustainable Education Every Day) Collaborative has set goals to meet the criteria of the Living Building Challenge, which is administered by the International Living Future Institute and surpasses LEED requirements. A project must meet 20 difficult imperatives in order to be designated a Living Building. It must produce enough energy to meet or exceed demand for a year, and it must not use 14 prohibited substances commonly found in portable classrooms. The new portable classrooms are also designed to last longer than older versions, which were usually only intended to be used for five to 10 years. Energy-efficient features make them more expensive, but they usually pay for themselves in terms of lower energy and maintenance costs.