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Modular Learning Environments

Beyond the ‘Classroom in a Can’
“A college is not a trailer park. It should not look like one…My first teaching job was in a prison, and the rooms were nicer
then these. If you were all excited about going to college, wouldn’t you be disappointed?”

—Butte College President Sandra Acebo

Over 3 million students at colleges, universities, and K-12 schools learn in modular trailers, known for poor air quality,
structural inadequacy, and inferior aesthetics. Extensive research on the $2 billion a year temporary classroom market
reveals an industry ripe for an influx of innovative design and strategic thinking. Inspired by successful academic
precedents, pre-fab housing experiments, futuristic thinkers, and temporary environments, MKThink advocates revolutionizing
the industry through both inventive design and organization of the fragmented market to capitalize on economies of scale.

An MKThink Research Publication
27 April 2004

For further information, please contact:
Chloe Lauer at 415 288 3394
Modular Learning Environments
Beyond the ‘Classroom in a Can’ Students socialize outside trailer classrooms


Colleges, universities, and K-12 schools are strained by changing K-12 educational demand for modular units is also striking. More
priorities, demographics, and economics. They increasingly than two million students attend classes in 80-85,000 modular
require temporary space solutions to meet the demands placed classroom units in California alone. In 1991, the California
on the built environment. Typically these temporary spaces are Auditor general estimated that 72 percent of all California school
accommodated with modular trailers. The modular industry, sites had portable classrooms. And until 1998, the State required
driven by aggressive price competition, is limited in its ability to that at least 30 percent of classrooms be portable. Helping
create breakthrough design solutions. The results are learning to meet that requirement, Cesar Chavez Elementary School in
environments of mediocre quality that impact as many as 3.15 Corona, CA, built in 1997, is made entirely of modular units.
million students annually.
The Industry
At the university level, approximately 450,000 full-time equivalent
students per year utilize ‘Classrooms in a Can,’ and the demand This market is currently supplied by a large number of
for temporary space solutions is increasing (Figure 1). Enrollments manufacturers–smaller companies employing 50-150 people
at postsecondary schools will grow by 12 percent between now with revenues under $30 million per year characterize the
and 2012. Because of building development lag, the increasing modular classroom industry. These providers have reached an
costs of permanent spaces, and the need for flexible space equilibrium of cost relative to quantity and have little incentive to
to accommodate shifting populations, we project the need for innovate. Even though there are many manufacturers of temporary
temporary space will increase by 15-20 percent in the same time classroom environments, there is little differentiation among the
period (Figure 1). standard products.

FIGURE 1: Growing Demand for Temporary Classrooms FIGURE 2: Annual Expenditures for Temporary Classrooms
20 2

$1.65 Billion
16 Temporary
Classrooms 1.5
Millions of Students

Billions of Dollars

Traditional Traditional
8 Classrooms Classrooms

4 $350 Million

0% 0
2004 2012 Colleges/Universities K-12 Schools
Type of Educational Institution

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Portable Units Students listen to a lecture in a trailer

The Market lowest common denominator. Typical modular classrooms are
structurally inferior, particularly susceptible to earthquakes and
Expenditures on modular trailers on college campuses in the U.S. hurricanes. Students in modular units often suffer from poor air
exceed $350 million per year (Figure 2). By way of comparison, quality due to improper ventilation and higher levels of exposure
this equals 15 percent of all new library book purchases and to toxins. Finally, temporary units are ugly—priorities of time and
15 percent of all spending on additions to existing buildings. An cost-savings win out over aesthetics, leading to what Ken Tanner
additional $1.65 billion per year is spent on modular units for K- terms ‘slum architecture.’ Thus, significant opportunities to provide
12 schools, for a total annual expenditure of $2 billion (Figure 2). anything more than basic enclosure are missed.

Life-Cycle Costs Use

While modular units have a life-cycle that may be considered Modulars are typically used for people-centered activities, like
half that of ‘traditional’ or ‘permanent’ construction, their costs on classrooms and offices. Seventy percent of those surveyed used
average are only 25 percent or less of the traditional facilities’ modular units for both classrooms and offices. Most units are
construction costs and 15-20 percent of the total project costs of under 1600 sf, and when configured for instructional space,
a permanent facility. It is clear that both K-12 and postsecondary many (35.7 percent) provide 21-35 seats. As such, they are high
institutions rely on these savings. occupancy spaces in which environmental and aesthetic issues
should be of central concern.
Satisfaction Levels
Modulars aren’t intended to be long-term solutions for temporary
space needs. According to our research, however, 76.5 percent While most university facility planners surveyed were satisfied
of facilities planners who intended to use them for the short term with modulars across a range of features, none were very
ended up using them longer then expected. Over 79 percent of satisfied with any particular feature. Modulars are thus considered
respondents reported using modular classrooms for longer than 2 adequate, but not excellent, in any particular category. They
years. serve a need, but because no other alternatives exist, planners
settle for them as mediocre temporary space solutions.
In addition, a large gap exists between the planners’ and the
Our original hypothesis was that modular classrooms fail as end users’ perspectives. According to our findings, 75 percent of
temporary space solutions. In fact, according to our survey, planners feel modulars serve the educational goals for which they
these units are filling the gap for both K-12 and postsecondary were deployed. In contrast, 60 percent of faculty avoids modular
educational institutions. But the standard unit provided is of the classrooms (when given a choice) for aesthetic, environmental,
and functional reasons.

Modular Learning Environments © MKThink 2004. Reproduction prohibited without permission. Page 3
Yale University Prospect Place (top); Seattle Pacific University Resolution: 4 Architecture’s Dwell Home

WHAT IS POSSIBLE? 1) successful academic precedents, 2) pre-fab housing
experiments 3) futurist thinkers, and 4) temporary environments.
Organize the Investment
Academic Precedents
The key to getting beyond the trailer park solution to temporary
educational space requirements is to organize the fragmented Though traditional trailers are the dominant form of temporary
market to capitalize on the scale of the opportunity. Such space solutions on college campuses, a few campuses have
organization would enable integrated research and analysis, raised the bar in their expectations. In general, the successful
design innovation, and production. experiments have been adaptations of modular and prefabricated
Gathering the fragmented market into a unified design and
purchasing force offers tremendous economies of scale. For A good example exists at Yale University’s Prospect Place.
example, the California State University system adds on average Factory-built as a temporary structure to house graduate students,
4-6 modular classrooms and labs to each of the 23 campuses this 11,700 sf structure was completed in 141 days. It features
each year. Campus by campus, this is not a big expenditure. extensive natural light through abundant windows and skylights
Taken as a whole, however, the CSU system spends $6 and a cantilevered steel frame that eliminates the need for
million per year on modular classrooms, and they have a columns or internal structural supports that block lines of sight.
five-year planning window that involves an investment in pre-
fabricated modular units of as much as $30 million. Because Seattle Pacific University offers another positive starting point.
the procurement is fragmented across institutions, very little of this To solve their temporary space needs, the university deployed
investment is coordinated, let alone driven by a vision to improve a 3,000 sf modular classroom facility built to completion in 78
the end product. days. By utilizing artificial brick siding on a modular core, the
design meshes with the overall campus environment. In addition,
The solution to a better environment starts, then, with organizing high ceilings and a covered courtyard provide a comfortable
the purchasing power of the potential market. interaction space in which students and faculty can enjoy the
learning experience.
Pre-Fab Housing
The factors for successful learning environments result from the
successful design and integration of definable key components Some of the most dynamic explorations have been in the creative
including: site design, sight lines, height, width, density, lighting, exploration of pre-fab and modular housing. Drawing inspiration
mechanical systems, character, aesthetics, and flexibility. from the modernist pre-fab movement of the 1950’s, many
MKThink’s goal is to translate these criteria into new prototypes contemporary architects are designing bold and innovative living
for dynamic, configurable, and potentially portable architecture. environments. For example, Resolution: 4 Architecture’s winning
entry in the Dwell Home Design Invitational offers a compact and
There are useful precedents to build upon. To explore “out-of-the- efficient house with both large public spaces and more private
trailer” thinking we will draw on four areas of influence: areas that capture abundant natural light and views. The reality

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Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House Circus Tent

that a quality space with a dynamic internal environment can entertainment spaces. So-called “mobile marketing” transforms
be pre-fabricated and is easily portable offers inspiration for trailers into dynamic stage sets that are unpacked on site.
temporary educational spaces. Unpacking these trailers results in a complete transformation,
as floors and roof are manipulated to create a self-contained
Futurist Thinkers marketing experience. Mobile exhibits have utilized trailers in a
similar fashion to enable small scale and/or special events to
The potential for pre-fabrication to capture human aspirations reach much broader and diverse communities than permanent
in a creative and flexible environment owes great homage to cultural institutions. Consider the venues created by Cirque-du-
the futurists of the early and mid-20th century. The visions of Soleil. For weeks at a time these traveling shows that arrive in
Frank Lloyd Wright included built and unbuilt prototypes for standard 12’x36’ trailers transform parking lots into vibrant centers
mass-produced housing that exuded character, and were highly of culture and entertainment. Furthermore, what are the World
functional, low cost, modular, and pre-fabricated. Buckminster Fairs but the creation of an environment for a temporary activity?
Fuller, known for inventing the geodesic dome, sought design While most of the solutions to this ephemeral event are permanent
solutions in “nature’s constructing principles.” His energy-efficient structures, many of the more modest venues use temporary
and low-cost Dymaxion—a “radically strong and light tensegrity approaches in inventive ways.
structure”—houses received much acclaim, but have never
been built. These works, and others, present unique and often REVOLUTIONIZING THE MODULAR CLASSROOM
elegant syntheses of functionality, flexibility, and utility, with
direct relevance to the study of contemporary modular learning What is next for the future of these spaces? If we continue to rely
environments. on the modular industry’s current product limitations, we contribute
to the declining quality of academic environments. Instead,
Potential Contemporary Prototypes: Exhibits, Pavilions, and research-based, intellectually grounded design, funded by the
Mobile Marketing economies of scale of the market, has the power to fundamentally
transform modular educational environments. By doing so, we
Today, some of the most dynamic and realized opportunities are serve our schools and campuses by providing students, faculty,
found in the world of portable and temporary commercial and and staff with high quality academic and work environments.

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Angel, Devanie. “Crumbling Classrooms,” in Chico News MKThink reveals and optimizes the nexus between people and
& Review, 6 December 2001; available at http:// their environments. Led by principals Mark Miller, Steve Kelley and Nate Goore, MKThink creates dynamic strategies that help
Buchanan, Bruce. “Moving to Modular,” in American School solve organizational challenges.
Board Journal Special Report: What Schools Cost, June
2003; available online at The MKThink team, comprised of anthropologists, psychologists
specialreports/0603Special%20Reports/S4.html. and business people, as well as architects and urban planners,
California Portable Classrooms Study Report to Legislature. strives to fully understand their clients’ identities, needs, goals
California Air Resources Board and The California and culture before ever putting pen to paper. With a strong
Department of Health Services, November 2004; available background in learning, workplace, community and healing
at environments, MKThink boasts a wealth of capabilities, including
leg_rpt.htm. strategic, analytic and design services.
Roman, Michael. “Stats and Facts: An Industry on the Move.” The
Modular Building Institute, September 2002; available at RESEARCH INSPIRES PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
Tanner, Ken. “The Cost of Portable Classrooms.” University of In the Fall of 2003, MKThink initiated a research project called
Georgia’s College of Education, 17 June 2000; available “Classroom in a Can” with the intention of understanding the
at http://www.coe.uga.sdpl/tornadoes/costofportablecla issues and facts concerning the deployment of modular trailers on
college campuses around the country. The MKThink team started
with extensive secondary research: they reviewed websites,
interviewed industry specialists, and analyzed collateral on
a variety of modular structures to gain a sense of the market.
Next, the team conducted interviews with industrial and school
professionals, which led to the creation of a comprehensive
online survey targeting college and university planners. The survey
elicited key facts about modular deployments and needs. From
this research, interesting patterns regarding utilization, function,
deployment, and usability were discerned. This information,
coupled with the previous secondary research, was analyzed and
integrated into a report of key findings.

A follow up ideas exercise led eventually led to the development
of Project Frog, a prototype modular instructional space. This
project was showcased in Metropolis Magazine’s August/
September 2004 issue. A model of Project Frog is slated for a
public unveiling at City Hall in San Francisco this November.

In the style of an ideal product development cycle, front end user
research was joined to ideation to lead to the creation of a novel,
functional, and aesthetically pleasing design more fitting for the
needs of the end user.

Check out Project Frog’s website to see how the company has

Modular Learning Environments © MKThink 2004. Reproduction prohibited without permission. Page 6