Class Act

Class Act

The Building Blocks system was designed by Hodgetts + Fung for a competition launched by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the 2nd largest school district in the US.  The goal was to find a replacement for the “portable” classrooms (i.e. little pre-fab buildings) that currently house a high percentage of classes in the LA area.  The portable classrooms tend to be badly ventilated, ugly, and many of them are old and not holding up well.

81 designs were submitted.  H+F’s was one of three selected to move forwards.  The Building Blocks system is a modular classroom built on a concrete pad and steel moment frame.  Three of the walls are FRP panels, with a layer of clerestory windows wrapping three sides of the room.  The roof and back wall are a single FRP shell with a baffle at the top to admit light and/or provide passive cooling ventilation.

H+F was contracted to produce the molds and some test shells.  Then leadership at LAUSD changed, and the district abandoned the program.

Craig Hodgetts explains the project thus: “LAUSD has 10,000 modular units [portable classrooms] on campuses, and they’re under a court mandate to replace them.  Some are very old.  They wanted to be able to replace a modular classroom with something without needing an architect, with just a purchase order.  The concept was to stockpile parts, so you could build in a few weeks after an order is received.”

The FRP shell is weather protection and a structural element.  It supports all the other systems. It is designed to ship pre-assembled with LED lighting, led lighting, fire/life safety system, signal wiring, and the skylight already installed.  The skylight includes a vane that can open or close, and can be adjusted for light, ventilation, or both.

Interior finish of roof is a corrugated, perforated aluminum panel.  Loose insulation is placed on top of it that provides both thermal insulating and acoustical control.  The room features a patented variable acoustics design.  The wall and ceiling in the teacher’s area of the room are hard sound-reflective surfaces that will help the teacher’s voice carry throughout the room.  The student area has soft and acoustically-absorptive surfaces to lower noise in room.

The shell is not a sandwich panel.  “We started with a sandwich,” explains Hodgetts, “and built a full-scale experimental section with foam sandwich and FRP inner layer.” The sandwich proved unnecessary.  “The configuration of the roof has a deep V gutter, and a large crown that rolls up through the section, and these curvatures form a very rigid structure.  It meets all the loading criteria of an architectural roof.  It’s only about 3/8” thick, 35 ‘ x 8’ for about 280 sf of surface, and weighs 900 lbs.” Marine engineer Alex Koslov partnered with global design firm Thornton Tomasetti on the design, and performed stress analysis that enabled them to optimize the configuration of the fiber content for a monocoque structure.

“From the green standpoint, it consumes hardly any resources relative to conventional construction.  There are no workers installing things in the ceiling, and it eliminates roofing issues.  From a cost and performance perspective, for a 1-story building, it’s vastly superior.”

The project won Architect magazine’s 2012 R&D Award.

The test shells are currently residing in a ship-builders yard in Santa Ana. H+F are hoping to do physical testing on the durability of the assembly at UC San Diego.  They are also hoping to get the Dept. of the State Architect to recognize it as experimental structure.  That will make it more possible to put it into actual use on a prototype basis.

There is a very good time-lapse video of the molds being made and the prototype shell being cast at


Images courtesy of Hodgetts + Fung