There is a wide array of factors to consider when evaluating the economic viability of school construction options. Whether the expense is measured by cost per student station or gross square feet, three key areas to look at include:
- life-cycle costs
- maintenance costs
Not every classroom construction option has the same lifespan. A 2016 state estimate asserts that most school buildings in Florida have an expected life-cycle of 50 years—and are on average, about 30 years old. When it comes time to replace or expand existing facilities, budgeting favors modular solutions, as they are initially 36 to 77% of the cost of traditional site-built construction. “Modular noncombustible facilities,” like precast concrete modular classrooms are built to last upwards of 50 years, much longer than their portable trailer counterparts.
While regular maintenance is critical to extending the life of a campus building, it is typically not factored when considering the overall cost of construction. Although the 2017 FOEDR report advises that “inadequate maintenance practices will shorten a structure’s expected life”, the Department of Education offers school administrators few “specific requirements” or “required actions” as it pertains to maintenance upkeep. It is essentially up to each school district to determine the barometer for adequate maintenance and how much money to allocate to it.
The benefit of extending the useful life of buildings is echoed in an article by Judith Patterson et al in School Business Affairs, “the longer a school district makes efficient use of portables, the more money the district can save.” Extending the life of portable trailers, however, can present unique challenges as these buildings tend to come with pervasive issues, despite maintenance efforts. Smell, mold, and leakage can lead to the need for constant, costly repairs that can eat up a maintenance budget, decrease lifespan, and create ongoing disruption. Precast concrete modular classrooms require minimal upkeep, which can ease the demand on maintenance dollars.
Precast concrete modular classrooms and site-built construction are the most durable classroom expansion options. Of the two, site-built construction is the more costly option and takes much longer to get to completion (due to the inherent longer timelines of traditional construction and funding delays), which means that temporary space must be funded as well.
Precast concrete modular classrooms are built to last. They are produced in NPCA/PCI Certified Plants, therefore they can be permitted as permanent structures. Precast classrooms are built with minimum 6000 psi concrete and have post tensioned roofs and floors. In addition, construction times are minimal, eliminating the need for interim plans for housing the student body.
By contrast, portable trailers have traditionally been intended to be used as temporary stopgaps. Educational associations like the NJEA caution against the use of even perfectly maintained portable trailers for more than their 20-year lifespan. In practice, portable trailers are very often used past this timeframe on the “just a little longer” principle—which can be unsafe. But to replace these buildings regularly can be financially unfeasible and contributes to even more classroom disruption.
When budgeting for school expansion it’s important to look at short- and long-term economic factors. Careful research and a clear understanding of your school’s needs and resources can go a long way towards finding the classroom construction solution that is right for you.