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DJC: PSU professors unveil green portable classroom
Author: Lee Fehrenbacher, Daily Journal of Commerce
Posted: November 30, 2012

Read the original story in the Daily Journal of Commerce here. 

Schools across the nation may soon be seeking a modular face lift.

Last week during the Greenbuild 2012 conference in San Francisco, Portland State University architecture professors and married couple Sergio Palleroni and Margarette Leite unveiled a life-sized prototype of a new energy efficient and affordable portable classroom. The couple started working on the Green Schools of the Future project more than a year ago in conjunction with PSU’s Department of Architecture to create a sustainable option for overcrowded institutions.

At the time, it was questioned whether the eventual design would be financially feasible. Previous concepts for high-performing portables had proven to cost from $250,000 to $900,000. A basic portable costs between $100,000 and $125,000.

“Frankly, I think that’s one of the most amazing innovations about the classroom – that we can actually build something green that school districts can afford,” Leite said. “We’re not trying to compete with green, fancy modular classrooms that are out there … we’re trying to create an alternative that can hopefully revolutionize the whole market for modular classrooms. I think we’ve done it.”

At a cost of $140,000 to $150,000, Leite’s and Palleroni’s Smart, Academic, Green Environment (SAGE) classroom costs about 20 percent more up front but is designed to last longer and save money over time. It saves half the energy of a typical modular right off the bat.

The classroom forgoes the typical acoustical grid ceiling and heat pump system in favor of an exposed energy recovery system that re-circulates the heat produced by the students’ bodies. It also incorporates bio phase-change materials – an agriculturally based material that absorbs and releases heat at lower temperatures than the surrounding air – in the walls to regulate temperatures. Leite said the bio PCMs are equivalent to four inches of concrete in their insulating capacity.

That technology works well in Oregon’s temperate climate, but Leite said many states across the country could also benefit. Efforts to market the classroom on a national scale are currently under way.

Pacific Construction Services, the general contracting division of Pacific Mobile Structures, a modular building provider that operates throughout the Pacific Northwest, will be marketing the SAGE classrooms on the west coast. It will be delivering 20 to the Gervais School District.

Leite said at least three other distributors have also lined up. Other partners include PSU’s Green Building Research Laboratory, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Blazer Industries, Inc., and Palleroni and Leite’s own company, PLDP, among others.

Another big advantage is the units’ use of a steel floor structure to increase portability. Most portables have a wood base, Leite said, and despite their name are not very mobile. The steel base also requires less investment in infrastructure, like hefty concrete foundations or long, sloping, wooden ramps.

“Down the road, it holds its value longer as a potential re-use,” Leite said. “It becomes a commodity.”

But perhaps the most valuable amenity to the classrooms is the improved environment. The SAGE classrooms increase daylight and increase airflow to reduce carbon dioxide levels – an important element of a healthy learning environment, according to a 2012 study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber designated the effort an Oregon Solutions project. Leite said it also recently received an award from the SEED Initiative.

“I think it has far-reaching possibilities for the country,” she said. “We’re excited about it, we’re proud of it and we’re moving ahead.”