Oregon effort will green portable classrooms
By Lee van der Voo, Sustainable Business Oregon
Sustainable Business Oregon
This image of a green portable classroom is part of a thesis design project by Sherry Shao, a recent graduate of Portland State University's Department of Architecture.
A pair of architects at Portland State University is turning their eco-friendly designs to a multi-billion national industry: portable classrooms. The state of Oregon is supporting their work, recognizing a green solution to the burgeoning portable school expansion may have implications for both public schools and the economy.
Margarette Leite and Sergio Palleroni, a married couple that also serve as assistant and associate professor of architecture at PSU, recently garnered support for their work from Oregon Solutions, a state-sponsored initiative aimed at addressing state issues and opportunities through collaboration.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, in sanctioning their efforts as an Oregon Solutions project in July, noted the work “… has the potential to strengthen the ties between the nonprofit, business and government agencies on the ground” in wrangling the problem of portable classrooms.
The thesis behind the work is simple: Portable classrooms aren’t all that portable, nor are they temporary. Many of the portable classrooms around Portland have been in place since World War II, even in relatively wealthy areas like Laurelhurst.
And while such classrooms are easier to pay for than new construction, they require extensive site planning and are essentially fixed in place. As permanent learning environments, they have significant problems: they are poorly lit, they off-gas pollutants from building materials, they have noisy ventilation systems that interrupt learning — some measure at 80 decibels, Palleroni said —their heating and cooling systems aren’t designed for a roomful of wiggling kids, and they have poor window placement, providing little exposure to the outdoors, something experts now say kids need to learn.
At a recent presentation at the green building research-focused Oregon BEST Fest, Palleroni called the portable classroom industry a $2 billion to $4 billion per year “shadow economy” — a shadow because “no one wants to admit we’re putting our children in trailers.”
“If we’re spending (that much) on portables, let’s make them spaces that can actually improve learning for our children,” he said.
Such spaces do exist.
“There are some really beautiful green energy classrooms and portable classrooms out there, but for that special school that comes up with the money,” said Leite. “The idea, really, is that we’re going to try to build a prototype that can be built for the same or less than a new portable,” broadening opportunity for greener learning environments without broadening budgets.
The idea took hold two years ago, Leite said, after a 2010 symposium included an exercise on portable classrooms. It spurred interest in developing a green model, and Palleroni and Leite probed the idea, with Palleroni focused on researching environmental factors and Leite integrating those factors into the designs. They’ve been assisted by Judith Heerwagen, a Seattle-based psychologist and a visiting scholar in the Institute of Sustainable Solutions at PSU, whose work focuses on the psychosocial and health impacts of the designed environment.
“Eventually, somehow, we caught the attention of the governor’s office,” said Leite.
With the Oregon Solutions sanctions, the effort has grown to a collaboration involving private and government sector interests. A $36,000 grant from the Institute for Sustainable Solutions funded the Oregon Solutions process, paid for five people — two faculty, one architecture graduate student, one engineering graduate student, and one architect — to focus on design work at PSU.
Click on the image above to meet the architects and view details of the project.
As design ideas inch forward, Portland-based PAE Consulting Engineers, Inc., is helping to develop the energy systems within the classroom. Portland-based SERA Architects is also designing the lighting. And Blazer Industries, the Aumsville-based company specializing in modular building manufacturing, is contributing engineering and design services and poised to build the first prototype for a green, portable classroom. Portland Public Schools and the Reynolds School District are meanwhile providing input. And Leite is working on bringing donations together to help fund the cost of the prototype itself. It’s not clear where that first classroom will be tested, but it’s expected to serve as a live classroom for the 2012-2013 school year.
Beating the current modular classroom model will be tough. Though research provides varying figures, Palleroni said the U.S. Green Building Council put the number of portable classrooms on order at 250,000, and the brisk industry is today one of the most efficient in the world.
“We want to compete with the current model, and that’s really hard. Those things are manufactured with no fat,” said Leite.
Yet installation costs are high. In Oregon, where seismic concerns and soggy soils are at issue, a portable classroom can still cost about $350,000, with much of that spent on a full concrete foundation and required water management. The classroom itself costs only $100,000 to $150,000.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is look at those foundations and see if we can reduce the amount of concrete going into the ground,” said Leite, and still meet safety guidelines, lowering cost.
The team is also looking for energy savings and to reduce the amount of off-gassing material. The results, if successful, could pay dividends for industry.
“Oregon has a huge stake in this. We are the largest supplier of materials in the building industry,” along with California, said Palleroni. And Oregon also is a large producer of manufactured housing. “These are both industries hit hard by the recession,” he said. He said the governor’s office has made clear that spurring new industry is as much a goal as bettering educational environments.
Lee van der Voo, lvdvoo*at*gmail.com, is a freelance writer for Sustainable Business Oregon
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