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Building a Better Learning Environment
Building a Better Learning Environment


Picture the portable classroom you remember from childhood, or the one your son or daughter attends school in: the drab walls and thin, moldy windows; the paint, flat and cold; the rectangular space, harsh and utilitarian. Maybe the classroom is 40 years old. Maybe it was delivered to your child’s school only a year ago. In the years they have been in use at schools, construction sites, and other locations, portable classrooms have undergone little change, from their construction — poorly lit, poorly ventilated, energy inefficient, and with materials that off-gas dangerous toxins into the air — to the amount of energy and money required to root the supposedly portable rooms to foundations that meet state seismic requirements.

Now imagine what the modular classroom of the future could be like: bright and energy efficient, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, windows all around, modular and easily moved from one location to the next as necessary. This is what Portland State professors of Architecture, Margarette Leite and Sergio Palleroni saw when they envisioned the Green Modular Classroom. Now, thanks to the collaborative effort of partners Blazer Industries, Oregon Solutions, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at PSU, M Space, Pacific Mobile, Energy Trust of Oregon, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP), prototypes of the Green Modular Classroom have been assembled and are ready to be tested in the field.

“Leite, Palleroni, and students working on the project had been in touch with us,” Joe Janda, Director of Innovation & Intellectual Property, said. “They came to us a few times with questions regarding copyrights. We were glad to answer, but as long as the project goal was to publically release the designs we didn’t need to get too involved on the copyright side of things.”

While Leite and Palleroni had been working on the designs for the Green Modular Classroom for some time, the wheels really started turning when ISS provided a $36,000 grant for the project. With some funding secured Palleroni and Leite, along with ISS, AIA, and Blazer Industries, a manufacturer of mobile classrooms, approached Oregon Solutions, a program in the National Policy Consensus Center at PSU.

According to Sarah Giles, the Oregon Solutions manager for the Green Modular Classroom project, “Oregon Solutions does collaborative community problem solving and project implementations across the state for projects designated by the governor."

“The projects Oregon Solutions works with,” Giles went on, “have to meet the state’s goals of economic, environmental, and social sustainability. In this case, the classroom met all of these goals and more.”

Eventually, with Oregon Solutions and a coalition of partners ready to get the project moving, the group returned to IIP to begin building a set of agreements that would help see the Green Modular Classroom through to the production stage. “When it became clear that the local builder in the Oregon Solutions group wanted exclusive access to the design,” Janda said, “we began to really sink our teeth into the copyright and licensing side of the project.” IIP worked with the PSU team to clear rights to the design package and worked with the local builder on crafting an exclusive license that met the needs of the PSU team, the wider Oregon Solutions team, and the needs of the builder’s distributors. “That process is still in the finishing stages as the contract and legal details are shaped to meet everyone’s goals and needs for the project.”

As the collaborative efforts of so many are beginning to pay off, Oregon Solutions is looking toward the fulfillment of the project’s two main goals: to have a test classroom installed in Chehalis, Washington at the start of the next school year, and to present the Green Modular Classroom at this year’s Greenbuild conference and expo in San Francisco this coming November.  IIP helped to cover the costs of shipping the prototype to Greenbuild. 

But according to Giles, “the bigger, long-term goal is that we change the way modular, portable classrooms are designed, manufactured, and bought.

In order to achieve this goal Oregon Solutions is preparing a Declaration of Corporation in which the various partners involved will sign their commitment to the project. When the prototype classroom is installed Palleroni and Leite will conduct research and collect data on how students interact with the building, as well as on how the building uses and conserves energy, data they hope will exemplify the success of their designs. ISS plans to continue to promote the project by doing community outreach and education. Meanwhile, IIP will continue working with the stakeholders involved in the project to ensure that the exclusive licensing agreement will satisfy the needs of all involved.

In recognition of their efforts, the project recently won a Civic Engagement Award from the PSU Center for Academic Excellence. There is, however, still more that will need be done if the project’s long-term goals are to be met.

The Green Modular Classroom may soon become the new face of public schools across Oregon, the Northwest, and beyond. In a time when many classrooms designed to be used for a decade or two are still in use for, five, and even six decades later, classrooms that do not support healthy living or learning environments and are as expensive to install as they are to purchase, we need to ask ourselves how we can build smarter, safer, and sustainable classrooms for our children to learn in. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to provide places where young minds can grow. In order to educate and train a population that will be ready to answer tomorrow’s challenges, we need to provide them with decent spaces to learn in. The Green Modular Classroom is one step along that road.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted June 20, 2012