Earthfix and Investigate West had an excellent series, with data and graphics, on the use of school portables in Oregon and Washington State.
InvestigateWest sent a survey to the
20 largest school districts in Oregon and Washington about its portable
classroom use, policies and perspective. The survey asked each district
how many portable classrooms it has and what percent of its total
classrooms are portables. The survey also asked how many portable
classrooms were newer than five years, how many were older than 20
years, and how many had been retrofitted with new heating, ventilation
and air conditioning units, as well as a full inventory of all portable
units. All districts responded but with varying levels of detail.
Numbers are estimates in some cases.
Part One: The Price of a Quick Fix - environmental and health costs
Part Two: The System
Part Three: Rethinking Classrooms
There's also a link to this report - Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol; Criteria for High Performance Schools, 2010 edition.
Some interesting quotes from the series:
The Puyallup School District where she teaches has 205 such boxes. They
form 20 percent of the district’s classroom space. They hold more than
4,000 students — so many that a new high school, a new middle school and
two elementary schools wouldn’t provide enough classroom space for them
The largest districts in Oregon and Washington now have thousands of
them and a majority are more than 20 years old, data collected by
InvestigateWest and EarthFix show.
Around 10 percent of portables in Oregon and Washington’s largest districts are newer than five years old.
Portables are often charged residential electricity rates because they
are separate from the rest of the school. Those can be 25 to 30 percent
higher than the rest of the school’s.
The first and only large-scale study of portable classrooms in particular was done by the California Air Resources Board in 2004, in response to numerous complaints.
“Facilities are handled locally by local school districts,” said Crystal
Greene, communications director for the Oregon Department of Education.
“I am not aware of any role the state has in terms of portables.”
Use of Portables
That year, state auditors flagged Evergreen for “excessive” use of portable classrooms.
Citing a suggested limit in Texas called the “Texas Ten Percent
Portables Guideline,” auditors noted that Evergreen had more than twice
the recommended number of portables. And, because portable classrooms
are more expensive to maintain than regular school buildings, they said,
the district could save money by reducing them.
“The school districts with a portables count above 10 percent of
permanent classrooms are not necessarily at fault or careless in their
handling of facilities planning,” auditors wrote. “They have in large
measure used portables because such action has presented the only
apparent and responsive path to housing the increased numbers of
With no limit on portable use, Washington tries to discourage them
through funding policies. Portables aren’t eligible for state funds, nor
are they counted as existing building space when the state evaluates a
district’s need for funding.
Washington education officials leave ventilation issues to the
state’s Department of Health, where Nancy Bernard is one person handling
what used to be two departments: Indoor Air Quality and School
Environmental Health and Safety.
Washington is ahead of many other states, but enforcement for good
indoor air in schools is largely nonexistent. Washington law requires
local health authorities to perform periodic inspections of schools, but
doesn’t require them to test indoor air.
Lessening the Use of Portables
Jefferson is one of the latest examples of Spokane’s rare but coveted
position among Northwest school districts — it’s been shedding old
Spokane has ditched portables the old fashioned way: by passing bonds
and building with brick and mortar. Meanwhile, architects in the
Northwest have been developing modular classrooms with green building
materials, better ventilation and low energy costs. Only a handful of
districts have purchased these portables with the new and more expensive
Spokane has reduced its use of portable classrooms by 20 percent
since 2008, when a state audit examined excessive use of portable
classrooms. Spokane schools eliminated more portables than any other
district in that audit, according to data collected by InvestigateWest
A nearly stagnant student population has been an advantage for Spokane.
Before long, they had designed the SAGE classroom
— a modular built with non-toxic materials, natural lighting and
ventilation, and low energy costs. The SAGE classroom costs $90,000 and
can be energy-neutral for $120,000, Leite said.
Traditional modular classrooms have a wide cost range, the low end of which is around $50,000.
“That was always the bottom line,” Palleroni said. “We’d do all these
things, get really excited, come back, we would add it all up and say,
‘Oh, darn it. Too expensive.’ So go back to the drawing table.”
The Edmonds school district in Washington plans to install several
SAGE classrooms, and schools in Oregon, Washington and Maryland are also
In Seattle, a nonprofit organization known as the SEED Collaborative
designed a modular classroom that qualifies for the Living Building
Challenge, the world’s most rigorous standard in sustainable building.
The classroom boasts net-zero water and energy. It collects rainwater,
composts waste and recycles water into a vertical garden along one of
the classroom’s walls.
It costs around $200,000 — double what a SAGE classroom costs and four
times more than the price of a low-end traditional portable.