Invasion of the Portables

Invasion of the Portables

Does that sound ominous? My apologies to the many portables who come in peace. School populations boom and bust in a fashion that most districts have a hard time staying ahead of. Inadequate school funding exacerbates the problem – districts often see the next wave of students approaching, they just can’t afford to prepare in time. So districts scramble to construct new schools while remodeling, mothballing or demolishing old ones. All of this is complicated by the fact that technology is changing so fast, and concepts of what schools should look like, and what you should teach and what you should protect against. Pretty overwhelming.

So along come the portables. Or modules. Or “temporary” fixes that stick around for a lifetime. These architectural Band-Aids for overcrowding can be made to look palatable, but more often end up looking like refugee housing.

Dreary looks are only the half of it. Older and/or low end models are often environmentally unpleasant, poorly insulated mold factories. That’s not true of higher quality, modern versions, which can look nice and function reasonably well ( offers some decent versions, for example, as shown below) but even with solid structures, brought in as afterthoughts, portables are almost always security disasters.


Its commonplace to see reasonably well constructed fortresses severely compromised when a hasty collection of portables is suddenly dropped outside the castle walls as if nobody saw them coming. This is a shame, because we’ve had decades of experience with these and should put more thought into preparations. Here are some key considerations:

1. When building a new school anticipate the unthinkable–where might you have to put portables someday. How would they be integrated into your site layout? Often they end up plopped down wherever it’s most convenient for delivery purposes, or for running cabling or power. Why not plan for this in advance? Put power boxes and other infrastructure access points close to the location where you anticipate expansion.

2. Pre-plan for a connecting portal. What hallway would have to be extended? What classroom could be converted into a new, staffed entry point? If a wall might have to be opened up to put an access point in the right place someday, run the pipes, sleeves and wiring around it, to minimize the cost of remodeling down the road.

3. Determine how you can best protect them. The most common approach I’ve seen, frankly, is to duck the issue. At best, cameras are installed that allow somebody somewhere an opportunity for surveillance. But a threat viewed via camera from a mile away is not terribly reassuring when an attack is imminent. Kids traveling between the main building and the portables are extremely vulnerable, and the spaces in between the portables are perfect for hidden, nefarious activities, which means live, on-site patrolling may be the only realistic solution.

4. The risk, however, can be reduced with some advanced planning. If the future connecting portal has been identified (see earlier bullet-point), the next consideration should be how to enclose our new tent city without making it look like an internment camp. Decent wrought iron fencing is the top-of-the-line option, but if we really believe the arrangement is “temporary” that’s a hard investment to get behind. As a plan B I’d consider decent, alternate slat, six foot wooden fencing, colorfully painted. Standard mesh fencing would be my last choice—unless the penal colony ambiance appeals to you.

5. Even better, if you’d prefer to keep fencing to a minimum, look for ways to use the portables themselves as exterior walls – circling the wagons, so to speak. This would reduce the amount of fencing needed to whatever was needed to seal gaps under and between buildings. Leave gaps for emergency exits here and there, as needed. Install windows in portables that look out into the newly created courtyard.

6. Develop the new courtyard into a positive space, rather than a mud flat between the school proper and the outlying buildings. Fielding Nair International did a beautiful job with one such space, as shown below in before and after versions.



7. Give the portables identities. Name them, or at least label them A through Z. Prominent markings, colors or icons will make it easier for students, as well as emergency responders, to find their way around.

8. And finally, gussy-up the portables as best you can. Vary the colors. Plant some flowers. For better or for worse, you’ve adopted them. It’s only right to treat them well.

Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 30, 2016

    Hi Tod, thanks for your informative articles. This one caught my eye because of the use of containers at schools.

    In recent years many local school districts in the Seattle area have contracted with us to swap out their old containers (many as old as 30 years – well used for sure!) for brand new 20 foot shipping containers that have been painted to match either the school building, the school colors/mascot, or painted to blend into the surroundings. We have then added extra vents or spray-foam insulation and easy to open door hardware. Finally, we build custom shelves so that these 20 ft containers can be loaded full of emergency response supplies and safety equipment.

    It’s nice to know that for a fairly small investment (less than $5,000) a school can have a safe a secure supply of emergency response materials.

    You are a gifted writer… keep up the great work!


    • Avatar
      September 14, 2016

      Sorry for the delay getting back to you. Your product sounds like a good option! That’s some excellent thinking inside the box!