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The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school board, has some 420 portables.Supplied

As students across Canada head back to school after on-and-off pandemic-related displacement from classrooms, many will be taking their seats in a school portable.

Portable classrooms have been fixtures – albeit moveable ones – in education for as long as anyone can remember. And they’re not going away. Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school board, has some 420 portables in use at any given time by some of its 247,000 students, with another 100 portables used for storage or leased to other organizations for non-school use.

Some leading-edge designers and educators think it’s time to reimagine the school portable. It’s not happening very quickly, though.

While huge strides have been made in designing schools, permanent classrooms and schoolyards to meet the needs of 21st-century students, portables remain much the same as ever – boring, prefab buildings that remain in use for as long as 30 years, according to the TDSB.

“Portables obviously still have a place in education,” says Cam Collyer, senior advisor at Evergreen, the organization that runs Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, which works with communities on environmental and planning issues. “But if you accept that we need them, then the question should be, what can we do with them?”

There have been attempts to answer that question, but even these efforts touch down only lightly on the portables. For example, Evergreen has been working with Irma Coulson Public School, an elementary school in Milton, Ont., on redesigning its grounds to adjust to climate change.

“Portables obviously still have a place in education, but if you accept that we need them, then the question should be, what can we do with them?”

Cam Collyer, senior advisor at Evergreen

The pilot project has engaged Berlin-based landscape architect, Birgit Teichmann and Canadian landscape architects to make the site more resilient to climate-related weather swings, and enhance its green space so students can directly learn sustainability and environmental issues.

“The first thing Birgit said when she looked at the project was: Can we move the portables?” Mr. Collyer says. The school, in one of Canada’s fastest-growing communities, has had as many as 17 portable classrooms in the last few years.

Yet even this ambitious schoolyard project, which seeks to alter students’ relationships with the outdoor environment, does not really change anyone’s relationship with the humble school portable.

Commercial, institutional, industrial and residential developers have all been working on innovative new eco-friendly designs, but portables are still stuck in a time warp.

One company, Guelph, Ont.-based Evolve Builders Group Inc., did design and build a portable it called MobEE (Mobile Eco-Enclosure) in 2011 using fire-resistant straw bales.

The energy-efficient, eco-friendly prototype was installed at a Guelph-area public school and the company-built units for Ottawa’s public school board and for schools in Northern California.

“Our goal was to create a premium product that made an aesthetically pleasing space, with maximized natural light and air, which would still be cost-effective for schools,” Evolve co-founder Ben Polley told Canadian Architect.

Commercial, institutional, industrial and residential developers are working on innovative, eco-friendly designs, but portables are still stuck in a time warp.istock

The company collaborated with Toronto firm Workshop Architecture to design a second prototype straw-bale portable with thicker walls, a window seat and glass doors that opened to a covered porch.

That was then. A spokesperson for Evolve said that, while the firm is still proud of its portables, it is now focusing more on designing and building environmentally friendly housing.

School boards’ just-in-time schedules for locating portables, however, seems to leave little time or demand for architects or planners to come up with new greener, more eco-friendly design.

The portables are not particularly environmentally oriented, says Ryan Bird, TDSB’s executive officer for government, public and community relations.

“Some materials in a portable can be reused – potentially, if there are wood elements such as wood studs or plywood,” he explains. “Other reusable materials might include unit ventilators or mechanical equipment, doors and windows, electrical outlets, lighting and WiFi, for example.”

But there’s little incentive right now to transition to futuristic portables that would, for example, help schools move toward Canada’s efforts to reach net-zero carbon emissions to curb climate change.

“Net zero is not possible from an economy-of-scale point of view, as we would need to add renewable energy sources such as solar panels, heat recovery and increased insulation,” says Mr. Bird. “We already achieve energy savings by having an operating schedule; the heat is turned off at the end of the day when the portable is not used.”

Greg Redden, partner at MZE Architects in St. Catharines, Ont., works with the local District School Board of Niagara and French-language Catholic schools over a wider area to provide portables at the beginning of each school year.

“It’s usually a rushed process,” he says. “Normally we’re contacted about next year’s portables in the winter while school is still in session. The applications for putting up portables have to go to municipal building departments, and we hope to get permissions by the end of July or August.”

Many of the portables in Ontario come from NRB, a firm in Grimsby, Ont. (near St. Catharines) and cost about $95,000, according to the TDSB. There’s usually the additional cost of moving and fixing them in place.

In 2015, when Workshop Architecture was working on the new portables, the firm’s architect David Colussi said it was time to rethink the portable.

“The portable has long been the poor cousin to the main school building, but with its location in the schoolyard and four exterior walls, it has the opportunity for excellent connections to the outdoors.”

Rethinking the role of the portable is even more timely now, with students returning to classrooms after two years of stopping and restarting face-to-face learning during the pandemic, Mr. Collyer says.

“Ventilation is a huge issue now,” he says. “Schools have to look closely at air quality and that includes the air in portables. And there’s the whole question of design for the whole school property – where the building, the grounds, the play areas and the parking go.”

Instead of slapping them up in the summer a few weeks before back-to-school, “portables should be part of these design guidelines too,” he adds. “We haven’t even touched on what [they] could be, not just for one class but for connecting everyone in a school to the outdoors for learning and for play.”