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Modular Adaptability


Portable classrooms are often used as an affordable and temporary solution to overcrowded schools. At the most basic level, these structures need only provide an enclosed space that is large enough to hold class. However, as designers, we have the ability to go beyond basic functionality. Creating a modular unit that can adapt to a variety of curricular requirements provides a more impactful and dynamic learning environment for students. When the structure itself is thus integrated into the curriculum, the portable classroom becomes more than just an enclosure to hold class, it becomes a tool for learning.

Before designing an adaptable, curricula-focused portable classroom, we researched several different classroom environments with a focus on how they related to their respective educational philosophies. Because our design is structured around early childhood development, our group toured a Montessori Training Center, the University of Minnesota Lab School, The Minnesota Science Museum, and Nova Classical Academy. Drawing upon this research, our design seeks to offer an interactive learning environment for both teachers and students. Additionally, the design strives to redefine performance standards for traditional portable classrooms through adaptability and efficient use of space.

The portable classroom design is characterized by its rigid structural frame, which is based off the monocoque systems of ship construction. The wood frame not only provides enough structural support to endure transportation, it provides an adaptable learning environment. Portable classrooms are often used to teach a variety of subject matters. When the room must shift from art class to lab science within a matter of minutes, a seamless transition is required. Therefore, the exposed structural frame creates a series of voids that provide storage space for different modules from which the classroom functions. These voids, and the modules that plug into them, create a thick wall system designed to maximize space and accommodate transformation.

The modules, spaced three feet on center, are located on both the interior and exterior of the structure. Because of the structural regularity, a variety of standardized modules can plug into the system. For example, the interior modules function as cabinets, windows, book shelves, and storage units for furnishing and equipment. On the exterior, the units hold equipment for outdoor activities and become a place for planting and other biological experiments. The constant interaction with the structure created by the modules engages students and utilizes the building as a tool for learning.

In order to host a variety of activities, the classroom required an adaptable furniture module. Rather than creating different units for chairs, tables and other work spaces, we chose to have one module accommodate all these functions. A cube served the versatility required of the furniture pieces. Proportioned to the dimension of a student’s chair, the cubes can be stacked or grouped to form a range of work spaces. Additionally, the blocks incorporate a feature that expands the range of possible configurations. A connection piece, based on the Jacob’s Ladder, was added to the furniture cube, allowing the system to span and cantilever. This connector engages the students by allowing them greater creativity in shaping their learning environment.

Like the building structure itself, the furniture pieces become tools for learning. In shifting and structuring their own learning environment, students develop a subconscious understanding of spatial relationships. Students can remove the modules from their stored locations and organize them into any possible configuration. The units may be moved and reorganized throughout the day. At the end of the day, the students must return the modules to their designated locations. This concept is similar to the Froebel Blocks—used by Frank Lloyd Wright during his childhood—where component parts are organized and returned their case when a child is finished playing.

Positive childhood development correlates strongly with a constructive learning environment. Therefore, it is important that we provide children with a more responsible classroom. By designing a classroom that adapts as various curricula dictate, we create a more effective learning environment, ideal for both teachers and students. Furthermore, the issue of quality classroom design is more prevalent today than ever before. Millions of schools all over the world are in need of additional space and portable classrooms are often the only feasible solution. In order to provide an effective learning environment, designers must offer creative solutions, to accommodate the portable classrooms practical budget.

Please take a look at our project presentation on youtube:



Minneapolis, Minnesota
United States

Competition Category Entered

Competition Details

  • Name: 2009 Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom
  • Host: Architecture for Humanity
  • Type: Public
  • Registration Deadline: May 4, 2009
  • Submission Deadline: June 1, 2009
  • Entry Fee: $25 USD Developed Nations , $0 USD Developing Nations
  • Award: $50,000 for the winning school for classroom construction and upgrading, and $5,000 stipend for the design team.
  • Contact: Sandhya
  • Status: Winners Announced

The competition entry ID for this project is 4093.

Project Details

NAME: Modular Adaptability
LOCATION: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States
START DATE: January 28, 2009
CURRENT PHASE: Design development
COST: $50000 USD (Estimated)
SIZE: 900 sq. ft
PROJECT TYPE: Education Facility - Day Care/Children’s Facility
, Architecture for Humanity

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