Today, Long-Term school facility plans can be thwarted by a number of different situations, including unpredictable growth, special needs and the need for lower teacher/student ratios. When you know it’s time to do something about overcrowding at your school, you’ll probably find yourself considering relocatable space. The following experiences help illustrate how mobile space helped schools keep up with changes.
Mike Somers of Ruxton Country School, a private K-8 school in Maryland, and Mike Carnathan of the Barrow County Public Schools system in Georgia, both cite the following circumstances as contributing to their need for mobile space:
- Demographics. New communities are popping up and shifting overnight, and with them, school enrollment can rapidly increase.
- Population bubbles. This is a situation in which there is a specific grade in your school that is more populous than others, often called a “bubble.” The needs of this group travel with it through the school system.
- Construction. Aging schools must continue to provide space for their students even while they are renovating or are making additions.
- Lack of funding. Although a long-term growth plan may be in place, there may be no immediate financing feasible. Students and teachers must be housed affordably until funding for the permanent plan becomes available. The best and quickest answer to problems like these is relocatable space.
In most cases, relocatable classrooms can be on the job in a matter of days or weeks — not months or years. They have the flexibility to be modified, added to, reduced or even moved to different locations to follow the changing needs of your enrollment.
Once you determine that relocatable classrooms are the answer to your needs, you’ll have to determine how many you’ll need. Your school district’s teacher/student ratio requirements will influence this. In private schools, a lower ratio is usually the norm, but a guideline for everyone is to allow 640 square feet per 20 students, which is a size easily accommodated through configuring individual, double, or triple-wide relocatable units. In addition to classrooms, space also may be needed for restrooms, office space and other ancillaries. So don’t limit the potential uses of your relocatable space with one-track thinking.
Ruxton Country School reaped an unexpected benefit from moving classes into relocatable space: they are now able to have a dedicated computer lab, science lab and art room in the original building. The relocatable space gave them opportunities for improving their school, not just for keeping up with changing enrollment requirements.
Often, there is only one solution to this dilemma, because of the availability of land and accessibility issues. But if the situation permits, consider what Ruxton Country School did: put your relocatable space right up front with a pleasant walkway connecting it with the permanent structure. This integrates the space well, and the perception is that the relocatable space isn’t just temporary or inferior in any way. Likewise, Carnathan’s philosophy about where relocatable classrooms should go is that they should be put right up front for all to see, to be a constant reminder of the referendum you’re trying to pass for the new school. A number of other considerations must be addressed when determining where to put your relocatable space:
- Mobility. Relocatable classrooms should be able to be delivered and removed without disturbing existing structures or ruining land.
- Utilities. The relocatable space’s location should take into account power, water and water disposal access.
- Codes. Often there are adjacency codes that must be met with regard to fire safety, alarms or number of doors.
- Topography. This is important to facilitate handicap ramping and minimize step requirements. Work with your space provider to iron out siting details.
Relocatable space is flexible, so take advantage of its chameleon-like capabilities and make it meet your school’s own needs. Because private schools need to maintain an image, the Ruxton School required that the exterior of their custom-built “annex” closely match the exterior of their existing building, next door. As a result, “nobody feels like they’re in a temporary space”, Somers said. Just because a portion of your school may be relocatable, doesn’t mean it has to lack architectural details that can unify it with the permanent structure. Especially effective are the use of:
- Colors. Relocatable space may be painted or trimmed to match the color of the permanent buildings.
- Finishes. The use of exterior compounds such as cement plaster can improve both the appearance and the durability of relocatable space.
- Exterior lighting. Decorative lanterns or other lighting can help to give relocatable space a less institutional feel.
- Covered walkways. This element can provide a very strong visual, physical and emotional link if it is extended to the relocatable building.
- Landscaping. A few well-placed trees or shrubs can make a world of difference.
Consider electric and plumbing hookups, and installation and inspection fees. In many cases the facilities department can handle some of what has to be done, or you can contract out. Be aware that there are costs for these services that can sometimes be a surprise to many administrators. Of course, most mobile space providers also will be able to handle the installation for you. This is a cost you will incur only once, unless you later choose to move your space to another site. Some providers offer turnkey service. In other words those providers can arrange everything to do with the installation, from obtaining permits to building an entrance ramp. All you do is place an order and on the appointed day, start holding classes.
Of course, price and availability are prime concerns when choosing a relocatable space provider. But other considerations are experience in constructing classrooms in your state, and in-plant inspection by the state architect’s office.
Another often overlooked concern is whether the supplier is bondable and approvable. Also, you want a provider who understands what you need and will work with you to make sure you get it. A major part of the appeal of relocatable space stems from the fact that financing is so flexible. Leases for a specific period of time let you make affordable monthly payments, and when you no longer need the space, your obligation is finished. Purchasing is also an option. Some companies offer a buy-back service to people who purchase space from them. This provides the ability to recoup some of the money spent initially.
Another convenient alternative is leasing to own. With this option, you have the ability to make monthly payments with the goal of ownership. Look for a relocatable space provider who tries to develop a payment plan to suit any school and budget. Barrow County, a community that has been growing at an astonishing rate, has 80 relocatable units and uses a combination of buying and leasing. The beauty of relocatable space is that next year, when their new elementary school opens, they will turn in seven of their rental spaces. The following year, with a new middle school up and running, they will be able to turn in 15 more. And the year after that, with the opening of their new high school, 25 units will go back to the provider. Carnathan said his school system couldn’t get through their over-enrollment crisis without mobile space. Barrow County is a success story in the making. With a little bit of planning and a reliable provider, your school as well can have the extra space it needs — in a hurry, with no interruptions — at a cost that is workable for you.
Jack Wyatt is recently retired from Williams Scotsman. He can be reached by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org