When architect Christof Jantzen sent his three kids off to school in Southern California, he was disappointed by the facilities they encountered: stale, windowless temporary classrooms erected when the school ran out of space. The principal of the Venice, California-based Studio Jantzen decided he could design a better prefabricated classroom. His mobile classroom design concept is a kit of parts schools can use to create cost-efficient classrooms that receive more natural light and are made of higher-quality materials than the standard portable. And they look cool, to boot, owing more to the aesthetic of luxury cabins than the flimsy classroom models that are a familiar sight on most K-12 campuses.
Temporary classrooms are typically designed for short-term use, during the construction of permanent education spaces, whether for school expansion or after a disaster. But they aren’t always used that way. “The reality is that schools–at least in California–they’re always short on space,” he told Co.Design. Many schools end up using them for far longer than expected.
Because they’re not built to last over a period of a decade or more, portable classrooms may pose a health risk for children over the course of many years. “I think there’s a lot of health problems with those existing classrooms in terms of choice of materials and their toxicity,” according to Jantzen, who calls the materials “substandard at best.” A 2004 report by the state Environmental Protection Agency estimated that of the 85,000 portable classrooms were in use in California alone, many have inadequate ventilation systems and higher levels of formaldehyde and arsenic than traditional classrooms (though traditional classrooms also faced those issues).
Jantzen’s goal was to design a classroom with longer-lasting, renewable material and to provide better acoustics, light, and air flow without the use of toxic chemicals like formaldehyde. A connection to the outside was vital. The modern wooden units, designed with vertical and lateral braces, feature windows on all sides, bringing natural light and ventilation into the space with operable windows. “You don’t have to sit in a dark box,” he explains. “There are other ways to work with prefabrication of a temporary classroom space.”
The architect is currently working with a prefabrication company in Southern California to bring his kit of parts–which would be assembled on-site at schools–to market. He estimates that the cost of his units would be about the same as a traditional portable classroom (according a sales representative from prefab classroom provider Mobile Modular, a unit can cost between $52,000 and $200,000 depending on the foundation, HVAC system, and more). Jantzen says the product could be available in the 48 contiguous states.
“I want this to be very provocative,” he says. “I think the education of our kids is the future of our society in the U.S., so if we are not able to provide adequate classrooms and learning environments. then we’re missing a very important step.”