A greener portable school classroom
A PSU-led team is redesigning the school portable to be green, efficient and affordable.
The modular classroom—ubiquitous, confining and rarely “portable” at all—has for decades been an affordable solution for overcrowded schools and fluctuating student enrollment. Modular buildings provide school districts with flexibility to respond to changing needs, but once schools invest in the significant infrastructure to install them, the buildings often remain in place for more than 20 years.
And for the purposes of teaching and learning, portables can actually drag down academic performance. Portables lack window views and natural daylight to wake up the brain. Poor insulation often means noisy HVAC systems distracting students. Young bodies breath air-bound chemicals that leach from construction materials, resulting in higher instances of respiratory illness and lethargy.
What if we could reinvent the portable classroom to be green, efficient and affordable? That was the question Portland State University’s Architecture Department asked in 2009, and they gathered a team of great minds from on and off campus to begin to address it.
The PSU team includes Oregon Solutions, the Department of Architecture, Institute for Sustainable Solutions, and the Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property, as well as undergraduate and graduate students. Community partners volunteering their time to this project include the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Aumsville-based portable manufacturer Blazer Industries, Portland Public Schools, and Energy Trust of Oregon.
The effort got the attention of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in 2011, and he designated it as an official Oregon Solutions project, which resulted in the formation of the Green Modular Classrooms Team, led by Dennis Wilde, Principal at Gerding Edlen Development.
The team completed a design in spring 2012 that includes these innovative classroom features:
- A heat recovery system uses 30 warm bodies in the classroom to regulate a comfortable temperature, reducing or eliminating the need for heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
- Doubling the windows of typical portables increases natural daylighting, which stimulates learning. Automatic sensors will turn lights on rarely when needed.
- Steel floor structure eliminates the need to pour a concrete slab foundation, making the unit live up to the promise of bring “portable” — and less costly to install.
A first prototype of the design is being built, and will be showcased at the international Greenbuild conference in San Francisco in October 2012, and another is being built for placement at Olympic Elementary School in Chehalis, WA in fall 2012.
The team’s goal is to install a prototype permanently in Portland, where PSU researchers can continually monitor the performance of the classroom on site.
In the long run, a greener portable classroom has the potential to enhance student learning and creativity, decrease absenteeism, remove bad health effects of toxic building materials and create a smaller energy footprint so school districts can save money.