The modern portable building, or "knock-down" building, was first developed by United States firm Porta-Kamp in 1955. The first portable building under the trade name Portakabin was developed in 1961 in York (UK) by Donald Shepherd.
Portable modular buildings have various uses. They are often seen, alone or in groups, as temporary site offices on building sites (where they are often stacked two high with metal stairs to reach the upper level; see also Construction trailer). Other uses for these and other types of portable buildings are as guard shacks, rural offices, on-site changing rooms, etc. Some portable buildings are very complex by joining units these forming large office blocks. (even over several floors). These are often disguised as a normal building often with brick style cladding and a traditional pitched roof. Tara Park developed by Liverpool City Council have even used portable buildings to create temporary/permanent domestic housing for communities complying with UK building regulations and disabled access.
Due to population increases in many areas, portable buildings are sometimes brought in to schools to provide relief from overcrowding. Portable classroom buildings often include two classrooms separated by a partition wall and a toilet.
In both Australia and the United Kingdom, the word "demountable" in particular refers to portable classrooms.
In the United Kingdom the words "portakabin", "portacabin", "bunkabin" but not "terrapin" are commonly used to describe these buildings. However, the use of these words as generic descriptions of portable buildings has caused contention amongst some manufacturers. Spelling with a 'K' is owned by Portakabin exclusively for their products and is a trade mark owned by Portakabin Ltd  used to identify its range of re-locatable and modular buildings, and legally should be written with an uppercase P; but "portakabin" or "portacabin" is often used unofficially to mean any portable building of that general pattern. The spelling with a 'c' normally refers to similar temporary buildings made by other companies and Portakabin Ltd argues that the spelling "portacabin" is a misspelling. "Terrapin", like Portakabin, is a portable building manufacturer, although the term "terrapin building" is often used to describe any modular or prefabricated building. The use of “terrapin” dates back further than “portakabin or “portacabin” as the company has been trading for over 60 years. The phrase “terrapin classroom” arose from the sudden need for additional classroom space following the post-World War II baby boom era, and is now common usage for any portable classroom.
In Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, portable buildings are sometimes referred to as "ATCO huts," after the Canadian energy company that manufactures a line of them in one of its business units.
In Australia, small portable accommodation buildings are often called dongas.