Green-Classrooms-To-Go

Under pressure to reduce class size even as student populations are zooming, school districts are turning to cost-effective green-built modules for help.
August 11, 2010

The trend toward incorporating green building and sustainable design into modular school construction has been making steady advances, gaining the most momentum during the past year.

Modular construction can sometimes be greener than site-built construction, due in part to reduced site disturbance, decreased on-site construction time, and less waste production as a result of factory-based material recycling. Hord Copland Macht designed this classroom to ship on one truck, rather than on two trucks, to cut gasoline consumption.

"We're in a transition phase right now with a lot of education being done," says Steve Tucker, sales manager at module-maker Blazer Industries, Aumsville, Ore. He says it may be 10 to 20 years before green modular construction is the norm., but "architects are coming to us now more than ever before" for green modules.

A design competition held recently in Montgomery County, Md., focused on finding environmentally friendly classroom designs to promote energy saving in portable school facilities.

Module Building Teams incorporated many of the same technologies used in green site-built structures, such as recycled and low-VOC-emitting materials, sustainable water collection, and solar-energy systems. But they also found other ways to cut down on site disturbance and energy use.

The competition "created awareness about the opportunity to balance sustainable design technology and materials with affordable and well-designed classrooms that will lead to better learning outcomes," says Michele Cunningham, VP of marketing for modular manufacturer Williams Scotsman, Baltimore.

For both financial and health-related reasons, schools have been the driving force behind green-designed modules.

"Schools are driven by price first and other options after that," says Tucker. He notes that many school districts are facing a double whammy: growing populations on the one hand, and accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act to keep class sizes small on the other. Modules afford school systems a quick, cost-effective solution for creating more space quickly.

There is some scientific evidence (notably the Heschong-Mahone study of daylighting in schools) that student performance and health may benefit from better daylighting. Other studies have looked at ventilation in classrooms and the reduction of construction materials and furnishing that emit chemical by-products, such as VOCs.

"Kids metabolize these products at a much higher rate than adults," says Peter Doo, chair of the Northeastern Corridor Regional Council of the U.S. Green Building Council and principal at Hord Copland Macht, Baltimore, which designed William Scotsman's modular classroom.

Tricks of the green module trade

Because schools need to leave room for sports fields, modular classroom sites are often designed with little thought about orientation to the sun or prevailing winds. To give building owners flexibility in working with site restrictions while still achieving energy efficiency, Hord Copland Macht designed a flexible wall system of opaque and transparent panels that can be configured for individual modules.

In general, modular buildings use the same materials and subscribe to the same building codes as site-built structures, the chief difference being that modules are assembled in a factory and shipped to the job site. For this reason, they can actually be greener than some site-built structures.

Modules are constructed much more quickly than site-built buildings, cutting on-site construction time by 60–70%, says Robert Kullman, chief corporate strategist at Kullman, a Lebanon, N.J., manufacturer of modular structures.

That results in much less site disturbance, site pollution, fuel needed to drive to and from the site, and water run-off from disturbed soil. Factory building also reduces waste by allowing for recycling of materials in the factory, says Tucker.

But one of the biggest challenges with green modules is getting them down the road while meeting highway height, width, and length restrictions. Hord Copland Macht found a way to adhere to the restrictions and make the process greener for its classroom module.

"Most classroom trailers are delivered in two halves with two trucks," says David Lopez, the architect who designed its classroom. "We tried to find a way to get the whole thing in one truck."

His solution: movable parts, which pull out as needed to create extra classroom space, but don't take up space during the delivery process. The classroom is shipped on two 24-foot trailers hitched to the back of a truck. On site, the second trailer is spun around and connected to the first. After the seam is fixed, an inner shell can slide out of either trailer like a drawer; when fully extended, the shell will drop so the floor levels are flush. The sliding component is then set up on its own legs and its seams are sealed.

         
 

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