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Seattle PI: New portable classrooms aim to be good places to learn
Author: Aubrey Cohen, Seattle PI
Posted: August 21, 2014

Read the original story from Seattle PI here.

Like a lot of parents in the Northwest, Margarette Leite and Sergio Palleroni faced the prospect that their daughter would go to school in a portable classroom.

"We were concerned, as were a lot of other parents and teachers, about what kind of space this was going to be for students," Leite recalled on Wednesday.

Unlike most parents, they were in a position to do something about it.

Palleroni and Leite are, respectively, a professor and assistant professor of architecture at Portland State University. They worked with industry and government over the past five years to come up with the "Smart Academic Green Environment," or SAGE, which the Edmonds School District is debuting this year. Palleroni and Leite were on hand for a tour on Wednesday of the first two, at Hazelwood Elementary School, in Lynnwood.

The first thing Leite and Palleroni wanted to find out is whether there really were problems with portable classrooms. They assigned this task to their students, who learned that many portables have issues with ventilation, often have just one window, limiting natural light, and use sub-par materials.

"There were issues even in the classroom where my daughter went in the first year with some off-gassing," Leite said. "Some teachers and students weren't feeling well."

Studies have shown that abundant natural light and low carbon dioxide levels are the environmental factors with the biggest benefit for learning, Palleroni noted. Also, he added, being able to look outside actually helps kids concentrate on a lesson.

So SAGE has many windows, including a row of high clerestory windows, to bring in light, sloping ceilings that help distribute light, and optional LED lights that adjust to the level of natural light. Meanwhile, air exchangers cycle air three times as frequently as typical systems, sensors automatically trigger the exchangers if carbon dioxide levels get too high and Big Ass Fans that circulate air within the classroom.

SAGE also is highly efficient, using half the energy of traditional portables. It gets most of its heat from the children themselves and stores heat in walls with phase-change materials. The team is looking into installing solar panels that could provide all of the classroom's power needs.

That said, SAGE prioritizes health over efficiency, opting for aluminum windows over more-efficient vinyl, for instance, because vinyl can give off gasses.

With an optional steel frame, SAGE lasts longer, requires just four reusable concrete pillars on the edges, rather than a full foundation, and is lower to the ground, making ramps earlier to install.

"On top of all that, they're cute," Leite said. "I think it's important to making children feel valued. If we keep putting them in boxes that have no appeal, that have poor quality, what are we saying to them about how much we value them as human beings and the spaces that they learn in?"

Having built a better classroom, the job turned to getting school districts to buy it. The team built a prototype in 2012 and started showing it off at conferences. The Edmonds School District and a Waldorf school in Corvallis, Ore., were the first to commit, with Edmonds buying nine classrooms for five schools.

One issue, from the point of view of districts, is cost. Although the SAGE classrooms are cheaper than other green modular classrooms, they still cost about twice as much as the cheapest traditional portables (although they're only around 44 percent more than the portables Portland Public Schools has bought, according to Leite).

"We've had a number of other districts take a look at it," said Patrick Allen, major project sales representative for SAGE builder Pacific Mobile Structures. "They have to figure a way to fund it."

Seattle didn't opt for SAGE classrooms, but did incorporate elements of SAGE into their new portables, Allen said.

Just having someone be the first to use the classrooms should help, Palleroni. "It's really going to be the evidence of one district talking to another" that causes their popularity to spread.

It also will allow the architects to get hard data on the advantages of SAGE, he said. "In 10 years, when we have this conversation, we'll have a body of evidence about how kids are performing better in the classroom."