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Say the word "portable classroom" and you can watch the color drain from the faces of parents and teachers. Portable designs have gotten better over the years, and Oregon school administrators often see portables as a necessity when enrollment outstrips building capacity. Now, Portland designers say they've got a greener and healthier portable classroom.
Ben Cota has 14 years of experience in the hot, cold, noisy, and sometimes stuffy conditions of teaching in a portable classroom he says is 20 years old.
Cota explains, "This absorbs way more heat per classroom than inside. You don’t have that huge air conditioning and heating units."
So Cota says he’s always opening and shutting the window.
"Open a window, here comes a lawn mower. Close the window. Open a window, here comes recess," he says laughing.
Cota says his students put up with a lot. And he winds up using class time to adjust the temperature or to respond to uncomfortable kids.
Ben Cota: “They do complain all the time: 'It’s too hot in here, it's too stuffy, it's too cold.'
Rob: "Do you find yourself agreeing with them?"
Ben: "Yeah, most of the time, I agree with them! Most of the time, I just nod, and say 'Yeah, I know sit down. We’ve got stuff to do.'"
Students and teachers aren't the only ones complaining. Margarette Leite remembers joining the chorus of concerned parents and neighbors, when her daughter's class moved to a Portland portable.
"Neighborhoods consider them an eyesore, generally, and most people are not excited about them, for a number of reasons -- so we thought it couldn’t be that hard to make something that works as well as a modular classroom, but looks better and is a much healthier place for our kids to be," Leite said.
Leite wasn't just dreaming. She's an architect at Portland State University and is married to architecture and engineering professor Sergio Palleroni.
Together they've spent the last few years designing a new kind of portable.
Palleroni says greener and healthier portables have been designed before. But school districts buy portables to put up classrooms cheaply, and the green alternatives can be pricey.
Palleroni expalined, "So that's why we thought 'Can we do this, at a price, that we can buy the dang thing, you know?' If we did, now that would be transformative."
Palleroni and Leite say they've done it.
The sticker price on a typical modern portable is about $60,000. Palleroni and Leite have designed a "green" portable for $75,000.
It looks different. Old portables -- like Ben Cota's in Woodburn -- have few, small windows. The mockup of the "green portable" has lots of windows.
Leite explained, "So we have pretty much doubled and in some cases quadrupled the amount of glass in the classroom, because daylight and views are important for student health, and student mental awareness."
Palleroni added, "It's not just putting windows but you can’t move these windows one inch without changing the performance. These have actually been maximized for performance and economy."
Palleroni says there's enough light that teachers should never have to turn the lights on during the school day.
Some features are totally invisible. They help keep the portables at a comfortable temperature.
Inside the portable’s walls, there’s plastic sheeting with sort of a waffle pattern all over it. Sealed inside the waffle squares is a material that can help regulate temperature, by melting or hardening.
Leite said, "And the wax has a melting point at different temperatures depending on the way they make that waxy material. And what it does is slow down the loss of heat, or the accumulation of heat through the skin. It kind of acts like another layer of insulation, but it’s very lightweight."
Leite and Palleroni say it has the insulating power of concrete. But they say the classroom won’t feel like a concrete cell, and that it will have three times the air circulation of a regular portable.
The portable's air exchange system uses the warmth of the air it’s sending out to heat up the air coming in.
Palleroni said, "It really is about ventilation. That’s also why we’re able to increase the ventilation so much."
Portland State students like Cady Head-Skoglund helped design the portables in their architecture and engineering classes. Head-Skoglund says she'll be curious to see whether the new portable design changes the attitudes of grade schoolers from complaints to interest in energy conservation.
She explained, "We want the kid in the classroom across to say ‘We’re using less than you’ and competitions like, ‘Turn off the lights quick!'"
While PSU faculty and students were finalizing designs, the Gervais school superintendent Rick Hensel was shopping for new portable classrooms. In July, Gervais put school buildings up for sale. Hensel planned to move kids into portables in the middle of town. But he wanted modern portables. I reported in July that Gervais was selling its buildings. And I thought then that Hensel might already know about the “green portable” schoolrooms at PSU.
Rob Manning: “Are you planning to use something like what folks at Portland State have designed?”
Rick Hensel: "Well, I apologize that I’m not aware of that, but I assure you that as soon as this phone conversation is over, I’ll be looking at that design. That would be phenomenal."
After we spoke, Hensel did contact Portland State and other officials.
Hensell concludes, "It’s not a trailer sitting out in the field. These are just, look like classrooms."
The design has been modeled and examined by lots of experts. They've looked it over for performance, and to see whether it meets building codes. But Sergio Palleroni and Margarette Leite haven't built any classrooms yet. Still, Hensel says he’s confident they’ll work as advertised.
Hensel said, "We have seen these buildings – and I don’t mean walk through them, but we know what we’re getting. And the more we looked at them, this was exactly what we were looking for."
The Gervais district plans to buy 20 portables. Eight of them would be for elementary school kids. The other 12 would be for a middle school campus behind the high school.
"So we kind of came up with this plan to put the middle school right here at the end of the football field and all the way down to the where the tennis courts are presently," Hensel said.
Blazer Industries, a modular building company in Aumsville, Oregon -- will start work on the PSU portable this week. Hensel says he’s aware he’s asking a lot of Sergio Palleroni.
Hensel adds, "I’m going to be excited. I know it’s put some pressure on him because here he is just barely getting his first one out, and we’re asking him to produce 20 in the next year."
Palleroni laughs, "If people could see our faces right now, there’s a tremendous level of anxiety in our faces."
Palleroni's anxiety may also stem from another deadline coming up soon.
Organizers of one of the world's most prestigious green conventions have invited the husband-and-wife team to put their portable at the front door to Greenbuild 2012, in San Francisco.
So, they need to have a portable built and trucked to the Bay Area in six weeks.
Sources for this story came to OPB by way of the Public Insight Network. Learn more about the network at opb.org/publicinsight.