The Oregonian: PSU students upgrade modular classroom for health, sustainability
Author: Sara Hottman
Posted: February 18, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

What started out as an exercise at a Portland State University architecture symposium has turned into a potential game-changer in modular classroom design at a time when school districts are increasingly using the cheap alternative to new construction.

PSU's architecture program over more than a year worked closely with a modular manufacturer to balance environmental sustainability and affordability, resulting in the SAGE classroom -- acronym for Smart Academic Green Environment. The modular classroom is made with recyclable materials and more windows at a relatively low cost.

Since students rolled out their energy efficient modular classroom prototype in November at Greenbuild 2012 in San Francisco, distributors, school districts and healthcare providers nationwide have inquired about. Gervais School District in Marion County would have been the first customer, with plans to order up to 20 modulars to localize its spread-out classrooms, but a bond to pay for them failed in November.

"We need these classrooms for many reasons; they're going to be around for a long time," said Margarette Leite, a PSU architecture professor who helped spearhead the project. "We've got to make green affordable."

The SAGE classroom costs a little more than the typical modular classroom, about $150,000 for a double-room unit, but is also 50 percent more energy efficient, has twice as many windows, and has three times the air exchange of a typical modular, the SAGE team says.

Energy Trust of Oregon, a nonprofit that in part works with schools statewide on becoming energy efficient to save money, granted PSU money for the SAGE classroom.

"We see the potential for this to be an innovative solution for schools to grow while also managing energy costs," said Susan Jowaiszas, senior marketing manager for Energy Trust programs. "This is an opportunity to create a better learning environment and dramatically lower energy use."

More schools are using modular classrooms in the face of fluctuating enrollment and budget cuts. A modular computer lab, for example, is cheaper than a building addition. A typical double-room unit costs about $110,000 for the Portland district, which has 177 modular units to meet space needs, up from 126 in 2010.

"Modular classrooms start out as a temporary solution and remain for some period of time because of a very tight education funding environment," said Dan Weldon, program analyst with the Oregon Department of Energy's Cool Schools program.

Because they inevitably become more than temporary, energy efficient modulars made out of healthy materials have long-term cost savings for school districts, he said.

The SAGE classroom emphasizes student health, Leite said.

She started examining the health factors of modular classrooms when her daughter was assigned to one in Portland Public Schools.

Leite and her husband, fellow PSU architecture professor Sergio Palleroni, asked students, faculty and professionals at a 2010 Activism in Architecture symposium to brainstorm healthy, sustainable alternatives.

The brainstorms served as a starting point for architecture students when the classrooms project was picked up by Oregon Solutions, a state Legislature-sanctioned organization that facilitates public and private partnerships to try to solve community problems.

"It gave us project management support and legitimacy," Leite said. "All of a sudden we went from a few students and faculty and to a team of 30 or 40."

The team was charged with designing a prototype to display at Greenbuild, the world's largest green building expo.

"It became a full-fledged project," said Caty Head-Skogland, a student and project manager. "We were working out details of a project that was real rather than researching something imaginary."

Palleroni's class of engineering architecture students collected data about air quality, noise, light and energy use. Architecture design students tinkered with the delicate balance between energy efficiency, healthy products and cost efficiency.

"We wanted to have as many glass windows as possible," Head-Skogland said, since natural light saves on electricity and is good for students in the classroom. "But every inch of glass costs more money."

The classrooms are vinyl-free, since the material can emit harmful gasses. One window distributor, Leite said, couldn't understand why the designers didn't want its newest, hyper-efficient vinyl window.

"Our main focus is student health," Leite said, so no materials that could contribute to poor air quality, including vinyl and formaldehyde in flooring. And, a revamped heating and air conditioning system brings in continuous fresh air.

Students found the typical, rectangular shape was efficient. But they scrapped add-ons such as the concrete foundation and ramp that comes with a typical unit and eventually gets sent to the landfill when the unit is moved. Instead, the SAGE unit has a steel foundation and ramp that travel with it.

The classrooms have one manufacturer -- Blazer Industries in Aumsville, Ore. -- and one distributor -- Pacific Construction Services in Marysville, Wash. PSU holds the rights to the design, so gets a portion of the sales.

The SAGE classroom takes about one month to build. The team hopes its design and cost will make a healthy modular the new standard.

"We didn't want this to be just a one-off," Leite said. "We wanted to work together to make it affordable for anybody and everybody to buy."