Opinions about their purpose and utilization vary from scourge to savior status. Why do districts use relocatables? In a word: flexibility. It has become a fact of life that long-term facility planning needs are upended by unpredictable growth, special needs and the continued political pressures towards lower student-teacher ratios. Frequently there are many extenuating circumstances that might require the immediate or short-term housing of students that would lead to a decision to buy or lease a relocatable structure. These circumstances might include:
Shifting demographics. Within a district or region, populations can shift to either suburban environments, or to newly created commercial or industrial industries. Districts are faced with the task of accommodating these population shifts without the ability to forecast the funding of construction well in advance of this shift.
Population peaks. Populations tend to peak during seasonal or outside influences, such as agriculture, military and tourism. Sometimes districts have empty classrooms to facilitate these rolling population increases, but with today’s tight facility budgets, any unanticipated increase usually spells trouble.
Population spikes. All too often growth bubbles move through districts, placing facility pressures on various sites and grades. Some spikes may be short-lived, but to many administrators scrambling just before school begins in September, these spikes represent both facility and staff disruptions.
Reconstruction or remodeling. As many of today’s district buildings age, the demand increases to reconstruct existing facilities for efficiency, handicap access, asbestos removal, appearance, or the facilitation of new teaching environments. Districts are faced with the question of where and how to house these students during this phase. Shipping them out to other sites frequently dislocates teachers, students and parents. This relocation also taxes both the educational facilities of the site under remodeling and all of the other sites where housing the school is being facilitated. Special programs. Programs such as magnet schools with specialized facility needs, special education, additional office space, resource/media centers, and other special program needs have an unexpected impact on a variety of housing needs.
Lack of long-term funds. The normal process of planning is on track, the growth has been charted and facilities planned, but now there is no money to implement those plans. The growth is there and is long term in nature. Students and teachers must be housed, so until funding is available, the utilization of temporary housing is mandated. The above mentioned reasons affect each district differently, but all have the same planning issue: housing staff and students on a temporary basis. The real challenge of planning may be determining what is temporary and what is permanent.
Planning for flexibility Modular facilities play a very important role in the master planning scheme by providing the cushion between what facilities school districts have and what they need. The planning challenge is to have the vision to know what facilities should be temporary and which should be relocatable.
In California, a minimum 30 percent of newly-constructed classrooms have been mandated to be constructed as modular and relocatable to facilitate the dynamics of the growth and shifts in California school districts. This level of flexibility may or may not be appropriate for the individual dynamics of every district. What California has done is to begin to plan for the unplannable. Since the tax limiting Proposition 13 was passed, the ability to levy local bond issues to fund new growth has been severely limited.
Many California districts have been caught in the squeeze between exploding growth and the inability to plan and fund adequately for permanent modular or on-site constructed facilities.
While relocatables are the best answer to nearly overnight short-term space needs, there can be problems of relying on short-term solutions to long-term permanent facility needs. California Assistant Director for the Department of Education, Henry J. Heydt addresses in his article (AS&U, July 1989) the impact of the possible over-reliance on relocatable facilities, “When schools are constructed, they are master planned to accommodate a specified number of students. This means that all support, auxiliary and program services are designed to support that number of students and staff…By placing too many modulars for too long with the resultant number of additional students, these support and auxiliary services begin to break down.” Classroom counts are not the only barometer by which school sites measure effective capacity.
The entire facility with regards to restrooms, offices and ancillary facilities must be considered also. Most newly-designed California schools take advantage of expandable planning by designing the site with a core of permanent facilities, with the option of later adding relocatable facilities as short-term needs arise.
Addressing the lack of adequate long-term financing presents a different kind of problem, as good planning is most likely in place, but for a variety of reasons the capital is not available. This demonstrates another facet of flexibility of relocatables, by utilizing operating funds for short-term needs, available or newly available long-term capital is left undisturbed, and the immediate shortage of facilities is resolved.
In many ways, schools have some of the same problems with facilities that frequently occur in the commercial real estate market. Commercial buildings are built, and then a few years later buildings can sit empty or underutilized, and yet, across town, the need for that same size building is pressing. If only these commercial buildings were not site-specific and could be moved to accommodate and facilitate changing fluctuating market conditions this would eliminate nearly all waste and would ensure higher occupancies and better returns for investors.
This concept of onsite-specific utilization of portables maximizes the investment of school districts. While the structure may have a specific use such as a classroom, restroom or science room, it is not tied to any one site and it can be utilized to its maximum potential for the useful life span of the structure.
Architects and Portables
Many school-oriented architects are not as favorably inclined towards relocatables as are the administrators who are charged with the responsibility of solving the housing needs of their students and staff.
True, many of the older relocatables did not take into consideration the aesthetic value, since these structures were perceived to be only a short-term concept. But these structures have continued to serve a very practical solution for a variety of needs. Relocatables are frequently purchased or leased with far less concern about how the buildings would aesthetically look or fit into the various sites, compared to on-site constructed buildings.
Initial cost considerations, and not the overall life span of these structures, needs to be considered to effectively measure the cost/benefit ratio. Classrooms that have the appearance of trailers frequently elicit negative perceptions from both the community and the educational staff. This perception has been born from previously developed perceptions associated with the manufactured housing industry. Some feel that these structures lack a sense of permanence in the community and therefore must be second-class structures.
Communities regard education as an institution that is their children’s future. Structures that are not traditional in appearance might well translate to the occasional perception of less than traditional educational standards. Utilize the talents from the architectural community to develop that appearance concept that your district feels would be an enhancement to existing and future school sites. Utilize the engineering, design and construction capabilities of the modular manufacturer. They know how to build the structures, and more importantly, how the structure will best be engineered and built to give efficient relocatable capabilities.
Utilization and Acquisition
When a decision to purchase or lease a modular relocatable classroom is made many of the same considerations that are routinely given to permanently constructed facilities need to be considered.
Determine the best siting location to facilitate the ingress and egress requirements of relocatables and look for sites that would leave the campus with the least amount of site damage after removal.
Review topographical situations before the units are sited to facilitate the possible handicap ramping or to minimize any step requirements. Analyze the power, water, or water disposal requirements that this new structure will have on the campus site.
Review possible foundation systems to facilitate seismic, wind and soil conditions.
Review any signal requirements for either voice, telecommunication, or fire systems.
Beware of new codes mandating fire safety, such as flame spread, alarms, number of doors, or proximity to existing structures.
Review what architectural enhancements would benefit a variety of sites. Remember, this structure is designed to be relocated to other sites.
Review and stipulate the quality of materials that you expect to have included in the structure. Set the same material standards that you expect from on-site constructed facilities. Even though relocatables can be supplied faster than any site-constructed building, be realistic about the time of the year and delivery schedules. Ask suppliers for ideas and solutions to your problems.
Quality modular manufacturers and dealers want to develop a problem-solving relationship, not just a buy-sell arrangement. Before your purchase or lease, make use of referrals to help ensure success in your project. If possible, visit other sites where your chosen supplier has provided other relocatable facilities. Ask if your manufacturer/dealer subscribes to the MMOA code of ethics. Make sure that all of the planning is done before manufacturing begins.
Unlike traditional construction, the modular manufacturing process is measured in hours, not months. The time for changes is before manufacturing begins.
Review warranty obligations. Always continue the exterior finish to grade level. Never leave a building looking unfinished. By finishing to grade, you have also eliminated the potential curiosity factor and liability of children.
Keep all construction documents in a safe location to facilitate the secondary moves. As with any quality structure, maintenance will both enhance the appearance and extend the useful life span of the structure.
Factory-built classrooms and facilities are built to the same building codes and standards found in on-site constructed facilities, and can provide the educational community the ability to add space, along with the luxury of the construction process taking place in a controlled factory setting far away from school-age children and construction-site liabilities.
Editors note: This article was published prior to the election of Proposition 1A in California.