“Portables,” those squat, ugly prefab schoolyard appendages, are a schoolyard blight. At their best, they’re zoning envelopes, not architecture. Often, when their cheap vinyl windows are sheathed in vandal-resistant wire mesh, they resemble the offspring of a penal institution and the slums. As a tool for reducing student morale, portables could only be bettered by hanging out the sign above the gates of hell in the opening of Dante’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy that proclaims Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate (Abandon all hope, ye who enter).
Yet, schoolboards can’t resist their advantages: Portables cost about a third to construct, compared to a classroom in a brick-and-mortar school. They only take a few days to install, compared to the year or so for proposing, designing and building a school. For the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, portables, for lack of anything better, have served as the overflow safety valve.
“Suddenly, portables are not merely a useful adjunct for school districts with fluctuating enrollment,” says Paul Sapounzi, Managing Partner at The Ventin Group Architects Ltd. (+VG), a full-service Ontario-based firm with offices in Toronto, Ottawa and Brantford, and a 50-year focus on education. “They’re the only practical way to relieve the classroom overcrowding that safe social distancing would otherwise cause.”
Prepare for an infestation of these pedagogical outriggers at your local K-through-12s because they’re the last, best hope for ensuring a full reopening of public schools this fall. “They’re critically necessary if we’re going to reduce the size of the cohorts going into classrooms this September,” he says. “In short order, there will be a demand for more space.”
Unfortunately, he says, “With portables, there’s been no innovation in a quarter-century.”
These 25-by-30-foot fluorescent-lit boxes have earned a bad rap. Though intended as temporary classroom buildings to smooth out dips and peaks in school enrollment, they tend to become permanent. As their concrete plinths splay and vapour barriers fail, their dark interiors become dank and mouldy.
Dan Wojcik, who heads +VG’s Ottawa office, explains that students assigned to portables often feel like unlucky, ignored second-class citizens. “They feel isolated in a narrow box disconnected from the life of their school.”
In a perversion of the US Postal Service creed (“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”), Mr. Wojcik says, “Students have to walk through minus-40 degrees or rain or sweltering heat just to go to the bathroom [in the main building].”
Inadequate fresh-air exchange can cause students to stew in unacceptably high levels of their own carbon dioxide by the end of the day, leading to fatigue. Studies show that as CO₂ levels rise, student performance fails.
“Sending teachers back to a room for six hours a day with poor or no ventilation and not enough space for social distancing is really the pitfall of Ontario’s back-to-school plan,” he says.
Indeed, students often resent portables so much that many anxious, affluent parents, this past winter and spring, started their own exclusive COVID workaround of private microlearning pods for their kids and their kids’ friends. However, parents of modest means who can’t afford to take time off work to supervise their kids, or merely provide Wi-Fi and a laptop or tablet, lack this option.
This adds an element of social inequity to the ongoing controversy about school reopenings. After six months of remote learning, it has become clear that the socioeconomic divide between students has a significant impact on the quality of their education. As kids gear up to return to crowded schools, there should be a better way to accommodate smaller class sizes than putting students into outdated portables. The situation is dire, with an entire generation of underprivileged COVID-19 kids in the making.
Mr. Wojcik pondered the dilemma recently while gazing at the honeycomb in the jar of honey in his office’s servery. That’s when the Eureka! lightbulb went off in his head. He had a vision of how to build a better mousetrap. He quickly sketched the outline of an innovative, prefabricated, rapidly deployable, sustainable hexagonal portable.
“Our HEX POD education hub boasts the most community-based, open, economical and simple systems solution for small-group learning at a safe social distance from congested school campuses,” he says (and, yes, it has a self-contained bathroom).
Pods can be erected near schools on existing sites such as playing fields and parking lots, individually or in clusters. “Our pod can expand beyond the single-module model of the portable, so that you get a richer physical environment than you would inside a rectilinear portable.
“I think of our modular pod as the missing link between carrying on as before, as if the pandemic had never occurred, with every child in a school classroom for the full school day, and dividing the school day into classroom and remote learning sessions where, if we’re lucky, learning goes on.
“Now, for the off-campus part of their school day, students who can’t go home for remote education can attend our community learning hub and benefit from coaching and a panoply of state-of-the-art technology resources such as wall-mounted digital interactive learning panels. Plus, they’ll be learning and socializing with their classmates. These are indispensable activities in promoting a child’s mental health and intellectual development.”
The pod’s hexagonal shape is the most flexible and economical container known to nature. Such a configuration does not permit 90-degree corners. Instead, the system is built around 120-degree corners so that installations of multiple pods cluster into honeycombs instead of grids. Liberated from the right angle, the layout encourages casual communication and collaboration.
Moreover, a hexagonal space feels more welcoming, spacious and informal than a portable of comparable floorspace. “When you sit in a box, you are either up against the wall or facing a corner. In a HEX POD, you sit amid the flowing, organic geometry of ‘open arms,’” he says.
His pod offers natural light and fresh air. It combines eco-friendly design with solar panels, grey-water systems, green roofs and energy-efficient mechanical and electrical systems. Here are further advantages:
A portable is constructed as a stick frame wood assembly with insulation in the wall. The HEX POD uses structural insulated panels (SIPs), a high-performance building system for residential and commercial construction. The lightweight panels comprise an insulating foam core sandwiched between two structural facings, typically oriented strand board fabricated with timber from sustainable sources. SIPs use less timber than the portable’s stick frame and are one of the most economical and eco-friendly forms of construction. IPS buildings are also more energy efficient, strong, quiet and airtight. Less air leakage means less drafts, fewer noise penetrations and significantly lower energy bills with a consequent reduction in CO₂ emissions. The continuity of the rigid insulation within the system enhances thermal reliability and inhibits the passage of water vapour, reducing susceptibility to mould-causing condensation.
The HEX POD provides at least 50 percent more fenestration than a typical portable. Thanks to its full-height windows, operable clerestory windows and operable central skylight oculus, the interior is light and bright and filled with naturally circulating fresh air.
Washable finishes on all surfaces ensure maximum protection against COVID-19.
The HEX POD features an integrated HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) and air purification system that includes a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter to remove airborne viruses and other contaminants such as dust and allergens.
Pod materials are certified to be nontoxic and free of off-gassing from formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. These can trigger asthma and other debilitating symptoms of so-called sick-building syndrome.
Pods can be erected near schools on existing sites such as playing fields and parking lots, individually or in clusters. Readymade pods can be delivered, already laid out to the user’s specifications, to the site. Individual pods can supplement existing facilities and be augmented with additional units as needs dictate. Pods can serve as overflow classrooms, administration areas, office spaces, support and prep rooms, collaboration areas, temporary washroom and storage facilities as well as medical examination and quarantine areas.
Each side is 17 feet long and 12 feet high, for a perimeter of 102 feet and surface area of 750 square feet.
The price of a typical conventional portable is $100,000. The estimated cost for a HEX POD is $150,000. However, its greater durability and lower operating and maintenance costs make it a better value in the long run.
The HEX POD incorporates recycled, reusable and ethically sourced materials. This attribute reinforces the sustainable green policies in place at many school boards. By occupying a pod, students will serendipitously imbibe environmental sustainability. Now that’s a lesson worth learning.
As of mid-August, the surging demand for portables had led to supply shortages, so the time is ripe for HEX POD to metamorphize from vapourware to durable goods. +VG is looking for a manufacturing partner.