Schools of all types face overcrowded classrooms and underfunded budgets. If you’re looking to expand the size of your student capacity, consider modular classrooms. They’re fast and easy to install, have flexible and affordable payment options, and create a safe and comfortable learning environment for students of all ages.
If you’re new to the world of modular classrooms, they can seem a little confusing at first, and you likely have some questions. Check out the following complete guide to modular classrooms, including their features, costs, requirements, and everything else you need to know.
What's In This Article
What Is a Modular Classroom Building?
Modular classrooms are an alternative to traditional construction. They function the same as any standard classroom, but they’re constructed off-site and then assembled at the location.
They’re often used to create new rooms when the main school building has run out of space. Their appearance can vary, from a single-wide trailer to a multi-room complex.
Despite what the name might imply, modular buildings aren’t portable. They’re assembled on-site using prefabricated materials. Once complete, they’re permanently attached to the ground with cement and similar substances.
Inside, you’ll find all the amenities of a regular classroom, including full electrical and plumbing. Modular classrooms typically have bathrooms, HVAC systems, and more.
Common Names You Might Hear These Buildings Referred To As:
“Modular classroom” is the technically correct name, but it’s far from the only way folks refer to these structures. Some other common terms used include:
- Modular school building
- Portable classrooms/school
- Classroom/school trailers
- Modular school complex
- School portables
- Temporary/temp buildings
Strictly speaking, not all of these names are accurate. For example, as discussed below, even “temporary” buildings will often stay in a single location for several years. However, it’s important to understand all the various names commonly used to describe these buildings, as they all generally refer to the same type of structure.
Types of Modular Buildings
Modular classrooms are divided into two general categories:
If you’re not familiar with modular buildings, the names of these two types can seem a bit confusing, so it’s important to understand the differences.
Temporary is a relative term here, as these buildings are meant to be used for many years or even several decades. They’re not easily portable. Instead, they’re professionally installed in a single location using cement and similar materials.
Temporary modular buildings are commonly used during construction. For instance, if the main school building is undergoing extensive repairs or upgrades, temporary classrooms can be set up in the parking lot or elsewhere.
They’re “temporary buildings” because they’re not designed to stay in one location forever. However, they’re still strong enough to maintain structural integrity for a long time.
Lease and Co-Op Options
Temporary buildings are leased instead of purchased outright. Leasing helps keep the costs more manageable and predictable, which is a big benefit for many school districts.
While specifics vary, modular suppliers typically require at least a one-year lease. Many districts end up leasing temporary buildings in five-year increments due to how their budgets are appropriated.
Another way to lease a modular classroom is through what’s called a cooperative purchase agreement. Neighboring school districts develop partnerships where they can share modular buildings across different locations as necessary.
Estimated Length of the Classroom’s Life
A modular classroom is designed for maximum durability. While factors such as weather and frequency of use play a role in a building’s longevity, the average temporary modular is built to last for 25 years or more.
Keep in mind that routine maintenance will be required. You’ll need to arrange for roof repairs, HVAC maintenance, and other standard upkeep that would be necessary for any traditional building during a similar time period.
Permanent modulars are designed to stay in one spot for life. Once assembled, they’re essentially no different than a traditional structure built on site. In many cases, the modular option uses stronger materials than the traditional type to help reinforce the structure and facilitate proper sound distribution.
You don’t have to pay for the entire modular before delivery. Practically all suppliers offer financing options, such as operating leases and other payment plans, so you can get your building on-site while staying within the constraints of your budget.
Estimated Length of the Classroom’s Life
With proper maintenance, a permanent modular classroom should last as long as any traditionally constructed building. In some cases, they can actually last longer than site-built structures. The modular construction method often results in a reinforced frame and a more precise fit for components.
As noted above, even a “temporary” modular building typically lasts for about 25 years. Regular maintenance will need to be performed, but the amount necessary should be similar to what’s needed for any other building. Maintenance needs are typically dependent on weather, use, and other factors.
Why Modular Classroom Buildings?
Modular classrooms offer several benefits for school campuses.
Building new, permanent classrooms takes a long time, typically between one and two years. Plus, the longer construction goes on, the more the everyday lives of students and faculty become disrupted.
Modular classrooms are ready for use much quicker. The entire process, from the time you place an order until the building is installed on campus, can take as little as two weeks.
Plus, the assembly process usually only causes a brief, minor interference to daily life on campus. A basic 20′ by 60′ modular building can be installed in a day, with a relatively small crew and minimal disruption to the surrounding area.
The specific timeframe will vary based on the type, size, and features found in the specific modular buildings you want to use, but they’re almost always faster to install than a similarly-sized room built in the traditional way.
Modular classrooms are the more environmentally responsible option. All materials used in their construction are pre-measured, so on-site construction waste is virtually non-existent. Over 145 million tons of construction waste is sent to landfills each year, but modular construction projects can help reduce that number.
Also, modular classrooms are reusable. Removing a modular from your location requires no demolition or environmental damage.
Another reason modular buildings are environmentally friendly is that they’re highly energy efficient. They require much less energy use to reach a comfortable temperature. Plus, options such as low-watt fixtures and specialty generators can further reduce energy consumption.
To clarify: the terms “portable,” “temporary,” and such in no way reflect the quality of the structures. All modular classrooms are built using the same materials found in traditional construction. In many ways, modular construction is actually superior to on-site construction.
All the materials used to build a modular are stored “under roof,” which means inside where they’re protected from the elements. However, when materials are stored on-site, they’re subjected to rain, wind, sunlight, and whatever Mother Nature decides to bring.
Plus, the quality of modular construction is often superior to what can be accomplished on-site. When workers have to measure, saw, etc., on-site, they can easily make errors due to a lack of light, flat surfaces, and other factors. But when these jobs are performed in a factory under controlled conditions, the risk of error is substantially decreased.
Modular classrooms are designed according to the same standards as any permanent building. They comply with all relevant federal, state, and local building codes and regulations. Additionally, inspections occur throughout the manufacturing and installation process.
Modular classrooms offer far more flexibility than the traditional type.
The size of the student body changes each year. A modular building can be used as a classroom during years with lots of students. Then, during years with smaller numbers of students, the buildings can easily be converted for different uses.
You can use modular buildings for computer rooms, cafeterias, offices, libraries, and other rooms that aren’t classrooms. It’s also easy to switch between different types of rooms by adding or removing components. For example, you can remove shelving and add extra sinks if you want to convert a library to a science lab.
Plus, modular buildings offer increased flexibility regarding security. While the main building has numerous entrances and exits, a portable building is much easier to secure, making them a good place to house important documents and other valuables.
If increased construction speed is the most popular benefit of modular classrooms, the decreased costs are a close second. Modular classrooms are often significantly cheaper than renovating or adding onto an existing building.
Modular building manufacturers can purchase their materials in bulk, which means general costs are often lower for the consumer. Additionally, fewer workers are required to assemble a modular structure than to build something from scratch on-site, which keeps labor costs down.
With modular classrooms, school districts also have multiple payment options, including:
- Lease – Buildings are rented, typically with at least a one-year commitment.
- Purchase – Buildings are purchased outright and then owned by the district forever.
- Co-op – Multiple school districts share costs for partial building use. The buildings are moved between locations as necessary.
Modular costs are also much more easily controlled. Environmental factors, material waste, and other issues related to on-site construction can add unexpected cost increases, but purchasing and installing modular buildings is far more financially predictable.
More Favorable Depreciation
Modular buildings have a better depreciation schedule than traditional buildings, which can result in tax benefits.
Traditional buildings amortize over about 35 years, which means you won’t see much of a tax break for several decades. However, a modular building depreciates much faster, usually within seven to 12 years. Faster depreciation results in a low tax bill.
Note that the term “depreciation” is used here in a financial context. It doesn’t refer to the physical state of a building. A modular classroom can depreciate for tax purposes while remaining in great shape for use by students and faculty.
Pros and Cons
While modular classrooms have many benefits for schools, they also have a few potential drawbacks to consider. Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons.
These are the major reasons school districts choose modular classrooms.
- Speed – A basic modular classroom can be ready to go in a few weeks while adding a new classroom to an existing building can easily take a year or more. Modular buildings can be put in place during the summer or other break periods.
- Cost – Modular classrooms are constructed with materials purchased in bulk, making them much cheaper than buildings constructed in the traditional way. Plus, modular assembly requires fewer laborers, which also helps reduce costs.
- Flexibility – Modular classrooms are there when you need them but easily removed when you don’t. They’re also relatively easy to move from location to location, allowing for school districts to use them as needed at specific locations.
In some situations, modular classrooms have limitations. Some of the main issues found with mod classrooms include:
- Low Roof Height – Due to limitations on what can be transported safely by truck, modular classrooms can’t have excessively high roofs, making them unsuitable for gymnasiums, auditoriums, and similar.
- Space Use – Modular buildings need to sit on flat land suitable for pedestrian traffic. Placing them on school grounds could potentially decrease the space available for parking, sports, or other outdoor activities.
- Environmental Exposure – Depending on where the mod buildings are located, students might have to walk long distances, possibly through adverse weather conditions, several times a day.
- Long Walks – If the walk between the main building and the modulars is long, students might feel rushed to make it to class on time.
Many of these potential issues have solutions, which the modular manufacturer can help provide.
How Much Does a Modular Classroom Cost?
Modular classrooms range in price from about $50 to $150 per square foot. Generally, temporary buildings are cheaper, starting closer to $50, while permanent options begin around $75.
Factors that influence costs include the following:
- Building size
- Types of materials used
- Location and condition of the building site
- Extra features
Keep in mind costs for factory-built are far more predictable than on-site construction. Suppliers should be able to give you a fairly precise estimate.
Costs increase with building size. While the material cost per square footage stays consistent regardless of how large or small the structure, other costs rise due to increased shipping, assembly, and other needs.
Quality of Materials
There are two major reasons you want to upgrade from standard materials. First, high-quality materials increase durability, helping the building last longer. Upgraded materials might even be necessary in certain environments, such as areas with lots of snow and rain.
Also, the quality of the materials used influences the look of the building. If you plan to use the building for a long time, you might want it to match the existing campus style.
Modular Classrooms Options?
You have multiple size and design options for your modular classroom.
School building codes typically require a minimum of 20 square feet per occupant. Additionally, specialized learning environments, such as science labs and art rooms, require 50 square feet per person.
Use the following formula to develop a rough outline of the size of the building you need:
Total Square Footage of Modular Classroom = Number of Occupants multiplied by 20 (or relevant square footage)
Keep in mind that’s only a general size. You’ll want to work with the manufacturer to help determine your specific needs.
Typical Widths and Lengths
A single classroom is typically 24 feet wide and 36 feet long, creating 745 square feet of space. A building that size can hold about 36 students. It also has enough space for an ADA-compliant restroom.
If you want a socially distant classroom, a 24 by 36-foot classroom can hold up to 12 students while maintaining sufficient space between each desk.
Double classrooms are usually 28 feet by 70 feet, creating space for twice as many students. With a double classroom, plumbing is typically placed on opposite walls in each room for maximum efficiency.
Most modules aren’t longer than 60 feet. In some cases, some 72-foot buildings are made, but there are often issues transporting anything that length or longer. State laws often restrict modules of that length from being transported on the road as an oversized load. The modular supplier will provide more detail regarding your state.
Federal regulations, as well as many state and local ones, limit the height of vehicle cargo to 13 feet and six inches. Because the module needs to be transported by vehicle, it must fit into those parameters. Additionally, the limit includes the height of the vehicle, which is usually around two feet.
For a single-story building, the maximum height is around eight feet. Transporting a building with that height is usually not a problem. An eight-foot ceiling is slightly smaller than the average ceiling in a traditional building, where it’s usually between nine and 10 feet.
Multi-story modulars are still possible, but they might require more deliveries and a longer setup. Fortunately, ceiling height is rarely an issue except potentially when working with large, custom, multi-storied structures.
The traditional, rectangular design of a modular classroom is so familiar to people because it’s likely the only one they see. Many modulars look just like any other building, so people don’t know they’re factory-made.
Modular buildings can have connecting rooms, hallways, multiple entrances and exits, and other features. Plus, a talented design team can often work around transportation restrictions if you want a taller ceiling or longer building footprint.
Of course, the more customization required, the higher the price tag. Fortunately, because you often save significantly by choosing factory construction over on-site, you can make your budget stretch further when developing a custom building.
The exterior design plays an important role in both style and function.
Practically any type of finisher can be applied, including:
You can choose the same as your existing buildings or whatever else reflects the school’s style. You’ll also want to consult with the supplier regarding which type of material works best for your area’s specific climate. For instance, areas that experience heavy snow will want a finisher that both helps insulate and can withstand prolonged exposure to moisture.
Aside from the finisher, you can also customize other exterior elements, such as the number and placement of windows and doors. You can ensure the building receives natural light throughout the day and is easy for students to enter and exit.
Your classroom requires a flat surface for installation. Grass fields and parking lots are the two most common options that work best for setting a concrete foundation. There are two types:
- Above ground
Most concrete foundations are between two and three feet above the ground, which necessitates a ramp and front deck of some type. You can also use a pit-set, which is when the foundation is buried underground, allowing doors to sit flush with the surrounding area. A pit-set does require more labor and time, which is why above-ground foundations are more common.
Temporary modulars are almost always installed with above-ground foundations, while permanent ones can use either above-ground or pit-set. While a grade-level foundation has more of a “real building” look, sometimes the soil or location conditions are better suited for above-ground. Your supplier will help you determine the best type.
Additional Factors To Consider
When selecting a supplier and building, keep the following potential issues in mind, which are unique to modular structures.
First, the land on your site plays a big role in the overall success of your classroom. Most parking lots and fields will support a modular building without an issue. Your supplier will help you determine the suitability of the ground at your location.
One of the most common hurdles is uneven or hilly ground. Level ground is necessary for modular placement. Fortunately, leveling ground is usually a straightforward project, although it does add to installation costs.
When selecting a manufacturer, you want to find a balance between proximity and price. Costs will vary by region, so you can possibly save by choosing a shipper who is a bit further away from major markets.
At the same time, all components must be driven from the factory to the school. Longer driving distances result in increased costs.
Costs, both shipping and otherwise, are also affected by the complexity of the features used. A standard building with lighting and running water is usually within the low to middle price range. However, costs increase in proportion to the features added. Some common extras include:
- Enhanced HVAC systems
- Higher quality building materials
- Furnishings such as desks, dry erase boards, etc.
Generally, the longer you expect to use the classroom, the more features you’ll likely want. Keep in mind that adding features to an existing structure usually isn’t a major problem, although it can be more cost-effective to add them during the initial order, as it helps keep transportation and assembly costs down.
Here are quick answers to the most common questions about modular classrooms.
Do All Modular Homes Look Alike?
When many people picture a modular home, they picture rectangular-shaped trailers. While that’s the bare-bones type of modular structure, it’s not the only option.
Modular homes, offices, and classrooms have very few design restrictions. Nearly all types of standard home plans can be adapted into segments for on-site modular assembly. You’ve likely seen modular homes and not even known it.
Do Modular Buildings Look Temporary?
They can, but they don’t have to. The image of a nondescript, rectangular building in a parking lot is a basic option, but you can add features and customize the design in practically unlimited ways. You can even replicate the design of existing buildings to create a uniform look across campus.
Additionally, if you plan to keep the building in place for many years (or even permanently), you can design your landscaping accordingly. Planters, walkways, and grass can make the mod a natural part of campus, instead of a temporary structure.
What Factors Should I Consider When Choosing a Modular Building Supplier?
From homes to offices to classrooms and more, modular structures of all types have seen a big boost in popularity during the past few years. When choosing a supplier, you have more options than ever, which is both good and bad.
Select a supplier with a proven track record of success and satisfied customers. It’s unlikely you’ll personally travel to the factory, so you’ll need to rely on customer reviews and testimonials. Also, try to check out some structures the company has already assembled.
Also, choose a company that either specializes in classrooms or at least has significant experience with that type of modular. They’re the ones best suited to understand your specific needs. Plus, mod classrooms have specific regulations involving accessibility and other issues that the manufacturer should understand.
Along those same lines, you want a supplier who offers lots of options. Adding and removing features is usually fairly straightforward in modular manufacturing, so a good supplier should have no problem meeting your school’s exact needs.
How Is Modular Construction Different from Traditional Construction?
With modular construction, manufacturing is completed off-site in a factory. Mass production techniques are used to create the major components of the building, such as the walls, floors, and so on. These individual sections, called modules, are then taken to the site and assembled.
In traditional construction, the structure is built on-site from the ground up. Multiple teams, such as framers, electricians, and so on, work in stages. All materials needed are brought to the site. The process typically takes much longer than modular assembly.
What’s the Difference between Modular Buildings and Prefab Buildings?
The terms are related but not synonymous.
- Prefab, short for prefabricated, buildings are any type of structure made in a factory and then assembled on a job site.
- A modular building is constructed from organized, self-contained units (the modules).
All modular buildings are prefabricated, but not all prefabs are modular. Some other types of prefabricated buildings include home and trailer kits sold by catalog. These types of prefabs have existed for decades, with the Sears Home Kit one of the most famous.
How Long Does It Take To Construct a Modular Building?
Installation time depends on the size of the building, where it’s being installed, and other individual factors. Generally speaking, a single-room classroom will take about a week or two to assemble on-site, although more complicated buildings could take around a month.
Permanent modular buildings typically take a little longer to assemble than temporary ones. With a temp, the ramp and outside walkway are installed at the entrance. However, with a permanent building, they can be built into the foundation itself, which helps them last longer.
Can a Modular Building Be Eco-Friendly or “Green”?
Absolutely! Modular buildings, including modular classrooms, are environmentally friendly in several ways.
Producing the modular components in an assembly-line setting results in far less material waste. Fewer wood scraps and other debris end up in landfills.
Additionally, assembling a modular building requires less energy than building it on-site. A smaller number of workers is required, and the process takes less time.
Also, modular buildings are almost always more energy-efficient than similarly-sized traditional structures. Heating or cooling the interior to achieve a comfortable temperature is far less taxing on a modular’s HVAC system than a central system for a larger building.
Do Modular Classroom Buildings Come with Bathrooms?
Yes, modular classrooms can be equipped with bathrooms. Even the smallest, single-room temp buildings will have the space for at least one unisex bathroom.
Plus, the design will meet all relevant codes and regulations. Within school systems, the most important issue is usually compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The bathroom will need grab bars, a certain amount of empty space, and other features to ensure compliance.
Due to the nature of modular construction, you can rest easy knowing the bathroom will be ADA compliant from day one.
Keep in mind not every modular classroom needs a bathroom. Some schools decide to place their new rooms close enough to the main building that walking back and forth for a bathroom break is feasible. (ADA regulations don’t require a bathroom in a temporary building.)
Why Do Schools Buy Modular Classrooms?
Modulars have many benefits specific to schools of all types.
The most popular reason is the speed. A basic modular building can be assembled in as little as a few weeks or months. The shorter the assembly time, the less disruption to the campus.
Another major reason schools choose modular rooms is because they’re often less expensive than on-site construction. The modular manufacturing process results in less waste, more accurate estimating, and reduced labor costs. Plus, manufacturers buy in bulk, which helps decrease material costs.
Finally, modular buildings offer far more flexibility, which is especially useful for schools. Temporary buildings can be set up over the summer when the campus is empty. They also have multiple users, switching from classroom to science lab to storage and so on as necessary.
Who Should I Contact If I’m Interested in a Modular Classroom?
If you’re interested in a modular classroom for your school, the next step is contacting a modular building supplier to discuss your options.
Not all modular suppliers are the same. Consider the following attributes when selecting a company:
- Reputation – Does the company have a history of satisfied customers? Check online reviews and ask for a portfolio of finished work.
- Location – Is the factory close enough to your job site to make shipping feasible and affordable?
- Financing Options – Do they offer payment plans or leasing options that fit your budget?
- Flexibility – Do they offer construction options and features so you can create the type of rooms you want?
Modular classrooms offer versatile, affordable, and fast options for schools of all types and sizes. Whether you need a basic building for a year, or a permanent multiroom structure, a modularly constructed classroom offers multiple benefits compared to traditional on-site construction.
Students get a safe and comfortable place to learn while administrators can save time and money, making modular classrooms the A+ choice.