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A Kinder, Greener Classroom
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: February 4, 2013

It's bright, it's airy, and it's portable. This modular classroom designed by Portland State Architecture faculty was on display at the Greenbuild Expo in San Francisco during November. Photos by Susana Bates.

Too many students? It's off to the portable classroom, but this one is something special.

TO GO TO SCHOOL, kindergartners and first-graders in Gervais, Oregon, have to take a bus six miles out of town to a remote building in an apple orchard.

The daily trip is too long for the children and too expensive for the small, rural school district north of Salem. But the superintendent, Rick Hensel, thought he couldn't afford to build a new school closer to home—unless he bought cheap, boxy, inefficient portables.

The solution came from an unexpected place: Portland State's Architecture Department.

Professors Margarette Leite and Sergio Palleroni and their students have designed and built the first affordable, green portable classroom, and Gervais School District is their first customer.

What started as a design exercise in a PSU studio could transform the $5 billion modular classroom industry and improve the health and academic achievement of countless students now placed in overcrowded and dilapidated schools. National distributors are already lining up to sell the classrooms to interested buyers from San Jose to St. Louis, with a small part of the income returning to Portland State.

Leite and Palleroni's SAGE (Smart Academic Green Environment) classroom lets in at least twice the natural light, circulates three times as much air, and consumes half the energy of a standard portable classroom.

For the Gervais School District, the new classroom eliminated the biggest obstacle to green construction: high price.

"Any way we can make a healthier environment, logic tells you that's the way to go," says Hensel, the superintendent. "But it really comes down to dollars."

The SAGE classroom costs about $75,000—20 percent more than standard portables in Portland—but saves money over time by using less energy. Other green modular classrooms are at least four times as much.

"Every school district in the country could conceivably afford this classroom," says Palleroni. "It's a dramatic paradigm shift from what exists now."

THE FIRST PROTOTYPE was unveiled in November outside the entrance of San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center for Greenbuild 2012, the world's largest green building expo. The project won a 2013 international SEED award for excellence in public interest design.

For Leite and Palleroni, who are married and partners in their own architecture firm, the project fulfills a shared design mission: to provide "sustainability for people who can't afford sustainability."

The classroom is the first flagship project of PSU's new Center for Public Interest Design, established this year with a $1.5 million anonymous donation. Palleroni, who will head the center, was one of the first senior fellows at the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, supported by a $25 million challenge grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation.

Leite and Palleroni initiated the classroom project with a grant from the institute to study how to make schools better and greener. They quickly focused on portables, because when school districts need more space fast, they usually can't afford to build permanent buildings.

The issue became personal for Leite and Palleroni in fall 2011, when their daughter was assigned to a fifth-grade class in a portable at a Portland elementary school, amid protests from parents.

They studied portables in the district, and found many are 50 to 60 years old, have few windows, and are made of materials that release toxins in the air. The ventilation systems are so noisy that teachers continually turn them on and off so they can be heard, causing spikes in carbon dioxide levels and reduced energy efficiency.

The more they learned, the more concerned they were. Strong research links conditions in school buildings with student health and performance. Natural light helps keep kids alert, for instance, while poor ventilation can cause health problems and lower performance on tests.

To produce the first prototype, they worked closely with a builder and distributor to keep costs down while targeting improvements that most affect student wellbeing and learning.

"When compromises had to be made, we always erred on the side of student health," Leite says.

The result "is so much healthier and cleaner that it is on a different planet," Palleroni says. "It feels so spacious and airy and light; even though the dimensions are the same, it feels dramatically different."

Gervais School District plans to sell its existing far-flung schools to help pay for new, centrally located SAGE classrooms, starting with an order for up to 20 to house kindergartners, first-graders, and middle school students next fall.

Leite and Palleroni plan to monitor the air quality and energy performance in the new classrooms and continue to improve the design.

"We've reached the frontier of truly affordable green classrooms," Palleroni says. "Now the question is how can we go further than that?"


At a glance

SAGE (Smart Academic Green Environment) classrooms

Architects: Sergio Palleroni and Margarette Leite, PSU Architecture professors

Design features:

  • More and bigger windows, including high clerestory windows under the roof
  • A ventilation system that brings in more fresh air, reduces noise, and conserves energy
  • A steel bottom frame to make it easier to move to different school sites
  • Environmentally safe, non-toxic building materials

Manufacturer: Blazer Industries in Aumsville, Oregon

Distributors: Blazer Industries and Pacific Construction Services (a division of Pacific Mobile Structures)

Partners: PSU Green Building Research Laboratory, PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, American Institute of Architects Portland, Portland Public Schools, State of Oregon Building Codes Division, Energy Trust of Oregon, Oregon BEST, and Oregon Solutions, among others

Suzanne Pardington, a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications, wrote "A More Perfect Union" in the Fall 2012 Portland State Magazine.