Innovative building manufacturers are designing new modular classrooms that offer a range of eco-friendly features, an inspiring learning environment, and, even better, the right price.
- By Jennifer Grayson
John Bracker had it all figured out, or so he thought. As head of Watkinson School, a private school for grades 6 to 12 in Hartford, CT, he and his team had embarked on an ambitious plan to expand the campus’s science facilities. They enlisted a well-known local architect, who designed a beautiful new building that would meet all of their needs. But when Bracker presented the plan for the approximately $10 million edifice to the school’s donors, “it scared the hell out of them,” he says. “It was too expensive.”
The obvious quick fix would have been just to build a smaller building,but with time to pause and reconsider, Bracker started thinking that maybe the school needed something more than a practical solution. “If we’re really going to find something that is a catalyst to what we’re trying to do here as a school, it can’t just be a [traditional] Butler building, or even atraditional modular building, because that’s not going to excite anybody,” he says. “We needed to find a way to inspire kids, teachers—donors.” Bracker also wanted a structure that would underscore the science curriculum to be taught in the new classrooms: “the idea of the building as a teaching tool and not just a building,” he says.
It just so happened that Bracker’s old college roommate, Mark Miller, was the founder of San Francisco-based startupProject Frog, a pioneer in the eco-friendly modular building market. Modular—also known as prefabricated—classrooms have been around for some time now. They are created in a factory, in sections, and then transported to the school site—envision the trailers that are ubiquitous in school districts with overcrowding issues. It’s only recently that a few companies have started to see modular construction as a vehicle for incorporating environmentally conscious design, building easy-to-deploy classrooms that are healthier for students and help schools save money on energy costs. These next-generation structures don’t look or feel anything like trailers: Think abundant natural light, great air quality—thanks to low amounts (or none at all) of potentially toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—and insulation that improves acoustics and keeps students toasty with minimal heating, even, as Bracker would find out, throughout a New England winter.
When Bracker took a few of his teachers to visit one of the Project Frog buildings, it was love at first sight. “They didn’t want to leave the building, they were so excited about the space and the light and the air, and all the potential for it as a teaching tool,” he says. Teachers saw the building as an agent of instruction, something they could put into play during lessons about sustainability and energy conservation.
Once he saw the teachers’ enthusiasm, Bracker knew he was on to something. From there it was just a matter of getting all the school board members interested in a concept that, for some, was unfamiliar territory. In the end, though, the $2 million price tag—a fifth of the cost of the original planned building—was “pretty compelling,” Bracker says.
In January, the school opened its new Center for Science and Global Citizenship: three side-by-side, 1,280-square-foot, custom-designed classrooms. The energy-neutral building—producing at least as much energy as it consumes—is outfitted with 60 solar panels that will generate enough electricity to power the structure, with perhaps a surplus that can be sold back to Connecticut Light & Power. Three geothermal wells provide all the heating, and the natural light reduces the need for electric lighting. Low-flow toilets and water fixtures in the restrooms cut water consumption by more than 30 percent, and the building materials contain more than 50 percent recycled content. From groundbreaking to unveiling, the construction took only six months.
“That’s immediate gratification,” Bracker says. With the economy still struggling, he thought it was especially important to find a solution that could have an immediate and uplifting effect. “Not just practical space,” he says, “but [a structure] that would capture people’s attention—capture their imagination about what’s possible.”
A Need for Speed
Eric Grantz was also looking for a solution that would be quick to deploy when he enlisted Project Frog’s services in replacing the energy-guzzling portable classrooms at Jacoby Creek Charter School, where he is the school’s principal as well as district superintendent. At this rather isolated six-acre campus in rural northern California, traditional construction would have been too costly and time-consuming, in light of the effort involved in transporting the manpower and building materials. It had already taken nearly five years to secure $1.7 million in state grant funding for the new classrooms; Grantz was itching to move forward with his plans to invest in classroom buildings that would set a green example for students.
Those plans include a 30,000-watt solar energy system that the school had installed the previous summer. The Frogs, as Grantz calls them, are engineered off-site, which greatly eases the amount of transportation required. Plus, they were advertised as going up in eight to 10 weeks, which proved to be “a very appealing concept,” he says.
The Jacoby Creek project began last May. The goal was to have the buildings finished by the end of the summer, but due to a number of delays—problems with soil preparation, a snafu with a subcontractor—the classrooms weren’t completed until mid-December. Still, Grantz puts it in perspective: “I think we may be the first public school in the country to do this.”
For the K-8 school, which is situated in California’s eco-conscious Humboldt County, sustainability was paramount. “Our vision was getting rid of all those ugly, poorly lit portables that just seem to be all over the state,” Grantz says. “The cheapest option for any school district, when you’re expanding, is to go with the state-owned trailers. It’s really a shame because they’re a horrid [learning] environment.”
Thanks to the grant money, Grantz was able to purchase the Project Frog buildings for his school for the same price as renting the trailers from the state’s Office of Public School Construction. Because it’s a matching grant, he explains, “we get $750,000 for free, then we have a 30-year loan [for the other half] for about 2.5 percent. That calculates out to about $45,000 a year, but we were paying that same amount to lease portables from the state. So for us, it’s a wash, and we get these new buildings.” Like Bracker at the Watkinson School, Grantz expects to markedly reduce his school’s electricity consumption now that those energy-eating trailers are gone.
Savings on construction costs andenergy consumption are likewise the promise of American Modular Systems’ new Gen7 prefab green classrooms, which were just unveiled at the California Green Schools Summit in December. Pending funding approval, Superintendent Marla Stephenson has committed northernCalifornia’s Albany Unified School District to being the first district in the countryto purchase the structures. Stephenson says that cost prevented her from going forward with “stick-built” construction, so she first looked at traditional modular construction to carry out her district’s plan to build four additional classrooms at Albany High School.
“But we wanted something more than modular,” she says. The city of Albany recently adopted a green building ordinance that requires all development projects to incorporate green building standards, and Stephenson felt it was important that the school district follow suit.
She found exactly what she wanted when she toured the Gen7 classrooms, which offer a laundry list of eco-friendly features: 80 percent recycled steel wall framing, nontoxic insulation, low- or zero-VOC paints and interior surfaces, and a three-inch standing seam metal roof that reflects solar radiation. The manufacturer says schools can expect to save up to 30 percent on construction costs alone, with classrooms that are delivered 90 percent complete and installed in less than 90 days. Additional savings on electricity costs come later, on account of Energy Star-rated tubular skylights that reduce the need for artificial light; daylight occupancy sensors that automatically lower the lights when natural light is abundant; and a thermal displacement ventilation system that trim energy costs by 35 percent.
Stephenson says the Gen7 classrooms are a far cry from your typical prefab buildings. “From their sustainable construction to the natural lighting, to the way they feel...I would venture to say that it would be very difficult for anyone to think they were less than stick construction,” she says. “I will tell you this: I would actually prefer the Gen7 to stick-built construction at this point in time.”
Perhaps even more important than theenergy savings the new modular classrooms offer is something that’s more difficult to measure: the health and productivity of the students. “They’re just such comfortable buildings,” Grantz says. “The teachers, the students—they just love them.”
He says that the heavy insulation of the buildings has helped with temperature control, but it has also made it easier for the students to focus. The acoustics are excellent, even with a kindergarten playground located right outside the classrooms.
Bracker has found the same thing to be true at the Watkinson School. “It’s quieter,” he says. “And the [natural] lighting is incredible. The students can concentrate better.”
The abundant natural lighting was one of the first things Stephenson noticed about the Gen7 buildings. “The design is really all about how to bring natural light in,” she says, “and the kind of light that’s really good for concentration and performance.”
The SHW Group, a US Green Building Council-aligned design firm based in Texas that specializes in creating environmentally mindful building solutions for schools,follows the same principles. “We practiceat our firm that natural light is critical, from an environmental standpoint and also from a learning standpoint,” says Konrad Judd, principal and lead designer for the company. “They’ve proven that vitamin D and natural light have a big impact on learning capacity, attention, awareness, and alertness.”
“They,” in this case, includes building energy-efficiency analysts at HeschongMahone Group, whose oft-cited study on the correlation between classroom lighting and learning revealed that students in green schools scored up to 25 percent better on standardized tests than students tested in non-green schools. In addition to natural light, lower noise levels have a lot to do with that; the Gen7 classroom measures in at 35 db(A), or decibelsadjusted, compared to 50 db(A) for a typical classroom. Perhaps equally important is the improved air quality due to the use of low- or no-VOC materials. This translates into improved school attendance as well, since better indoor-air quality minimizes environmental triggers for asthma and respiratory infections.
Of course, it’s still too early to tell ifthe new eco-friendly learning environments at Watkinson and Jacoby will produce improved student performance. “We want to see [what happens] a little longer-term, once the honeymoon wears off, when students take their first tests,” says Bracker.
But administrators at all three schools are convinced that these cutting-edge green classrooms will go a long way toward inspiring their students’ learning. “Certainly we want our students to understand the importance of all the elements preserving the environment,” Stephenson says.
Grantz, for one, hopes to use these new green buildings as a modeling tool for his students. “We try to do all kinds of energy-efficient things here,” he says, referencing the school’s recent solar installation as well as a school-garden initiative that supplies the cafeteria’s salad bar. “The Frogs just fit in with our overall vision perfectly.”
That vision involves the students directly in monitoring the school’s energy consumption. For the solar panel project that was installed at the school last summer, an interpretive center was set up on the Jacoby Creek website so that students can watch how much energy is being produced at any given moment, as well as the associated savings (the solar panels saved the district almost $11,000 last year).
At Watkinson, the science center building has become a valuable instrument in students’ study of the science of sustainability. The new green classrooms are outfitted with sensors that measure their heating, cooling, lighting, and sound levels. Students can view the data in real time on a snazzy web-based display called the Building Dashboard, from Oakland, CA-based Lucid Design. Bracker describes one ninth-grade Environmental Science class in which students are using the dashboard to create a building-usage plan to achieve energy neutrality over the course of a year.
Ultimately, Bracker hopes to have students apply what they’ve learned from studying these classrooms to the school’s future green initiatives, such as helping to determine what energy-saving measures to employ for some of the older buildings on campus. He plans on asking the students: “Would you replace the windows first or would you do more insulation? Would you put on solar panels?”
The new building is called the Center for Science and Global Citizenship for good reason: Both of those areas will continue to be intrinsically linked to environmental issues in the years to come. “The idea of engaging students in planning for their futures based on real data and research that they’ve learned about in practice is pretty exciting for us,” Bracker says.
So with all these advantages—energy efficiency, cost cutting, enhanced learning—it’s surprising that it has taken prefab manufacturers until now to go green.
“I hired a structural engineer to fly down to San Francisco to spend an entire day just crawling all over [a Project Frog] building,” Bracker says, “and he came back saying that he couldn’t believe it took the industry so long to come up with a building that was so smart and so green and so good.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of THE Journal.