Portable Usage in Oregon and Washington State

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 all.

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 students.”

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 portable classrooms.  

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 designs.

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 and EarthFix.

A nearly stagnant student population has been an advantage for Spokane.

Green Portables

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 interested.

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.


Anonymous said…
High use of portables is a disgrace! Put admin in portables and give the kids their building! Sometimes I wonder how SPS can sleep at night. You're failing our kids, yet your fine with your cushy comfy job in a new building. For shame!

Get me outta here!
Anonymous said…
Sorry, "you're fine"

Anonymous said…
My mother worked for a school district in another state that did just that -- put its central administrators in a cheap crappy building with portables while building nice new schools. I think it's a great idea. Better PR for the district.

Anonymous said…
Since portables are not going away in SPS, and its (sadly) unlikely that admin will relocate to portables and let students use JSCEE, what can we do to get portables better regulated and more rules in place?

Anonymous said…
Yeah, I don't really think admin is going to vacate JSCEE for portables. Well, are there any districts or states with strict (and enforced) regulations? My 5 minutes of Google searching didn't yield many promising results. I'm frankly shocked that 50% of the portables in Seattle are more than 20 years old! Shouldn't replacing those be a priority?

Well, yes to all of that. But per the article, no one is enforcing much and/or there are no regulations. Go to your legislator and show him/her the proof of the expansion of the use of portables and ask about a bill.
Eric B said…
You might also check into local city zoning requirements, since they are certainly applicable to portables. I doubt you could change things for portables already on site, but it could change things for the future.

Also, you have to be really careful with how the rules are written. One place I heard of had a rule that the portables had to be removed after some number of years. At those intervals, the school would pick up all the portables, move them off the lot, then move them back on in a different place.

That said, Loyal Heights is getting two new portables this year, adding to the 4 Truman-era ones (that my father-in-law went to school in) and one of more recent vintage. I know there are schools with older, crappier, and or more portables out there, it's just sort of funny to see more going on the site when the oldest ones are probably eligible for Social Security.
kellie said…
I do not have a problem in general with portables. When used judiciously they are a great capacity management solution. Permanent facilities are crazy expensive, hence a $700M BEX.

However, I do have a huge issue with the lack of transparency in portable usage. While the district wide average use of portables is not-that-bad. When you start breaking it down by region, you start to see some serious indicators of trouble. There are certain areas, where could simply run out of places to put portables and that gets lost in the "aggregate" numbers.

Also, I do have an issue that at some point, you are long past the "portable-ness" of a portable. IMHO, there should be a policy that by the time, a portable has aged to the point, where it can no longer be ported, it should be destroyed and replaced. Either that or there should be a shelf life attached to every portable that requires the replacement of the portable every 20 years. Otherwise, it just becomes such a part of the building, that nobody remembers.

There is a portable at Thornton Creek that has been so landscaped into the building that many folks think it is part of the building.
Arbor Heights had a couple grafted onto the building. It is truly terrible.
Anonymous said…
I started working in a portable classroom the end of August 2014. By the middle of November I was experiencing the following symptoms: EXTREME" shortness of breath. Inability to walk even short distances had me gasping for air. Developed a cough, which produced a clear slime-like mucus...that would make me gag and throw up. My voice became so raspy and hoarse. Very little activity made me exhausted.
At first I thought i couldn't be trying to work...i CAN'T BREATHE,,
Then another staff member started getting sick like me.
It is very real...and very scary. I have been out of the classroom (portable) for 4 weeks. I'm still sick, telling us that the damage may well be done. How can we stop the manufacturing of these portables. How much is too much??

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