BY BRIAN LIBBY
Today America's K-12 schools use some 350,000 portable trailers as classrooms. Lacking many windows, they have been shown to be insufficient learning environments compared to brick-and-mortar schools. But a new effort led by two Portland State University faculty members, Margarette Leite and her husband Sergio Palleroni, is starting to change that with SAGE ("Smart Academic Green Environment") classroom.
With the new academic year, nine SAGE classrooms have opened their doors at five schools in the Edmonds School District in Washington. In addition, the Corvallis Waldorf School will begin classes in a new building sporting three of the classrooms. Three more SAGE classrooms will be installed at an Edmonds School District high school in December. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Corvallis Waldorf School classroom is scheduled to take place on Thursday, October 2.
These learning spaces, designed to meet LEED criteria by students in PSU's School of Architecture as supervised by Palleroni and Leite, feature plenty of natural light as well as the ability to maintain thermal comfort without using much energy thanks to high-efficiency energy-recovery ventilators, which take the place of traditional HVAC systems and are capable of providing 100 percent fresh air. Overall, these classrooms will cut energy use in half while providing approximately four times the windows of conventional portable classrooms. Other features include bio-based flooring, natural cork bulletin boards, VOC-free paints and high vaulted ceilings that expose the building’s systems, enabling students to learn about how these structures are powered and constructed.
The SAGE initiative was supported by the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Oregon governor John Kitzhaber’s Oregon Solutions initiative, which helped connect the project to partners including manufacturer Blazer Industries, AIA/Portland, Energy Trust of Oregon, Oregon BEST, PAE Engineering, and many others. SAGE classrooms are distributed in the Northwest by Pacific Mobile Structures of Chehalis, Washington. Other national distributors include Satellite Shelters and Triumph Modular.
Recently I asked Leite a few additional questions about the sustainable classrooms.
Portland Architecture: How much do SAGE classrooms cost to produce, and how does that compare to the modular classrooms (a.k.a. trailers) that schools have used in the past?
Leite: The cost of a single SAGE is approx 90,000 (unit only, no site costs). When compared with the average cost of new modulars that PPS purchased in 2009 and 2010 (so the cost may even be higher now but those were the numbers that were available to us at the time), that puts our cost at only 20% higher. Granted, Portland chooses somewhat higher quality units so if you go outside of Portland you can find modulars costing around $50,000-60,000, but we are usually talking one window and cheap materials.
Is there some reason for optimism that there will eventually be more orders? Have you received inquiries from other districts?
Yes, there is strong reason to believe we will get more orders. Our sales people at Pacific Mobile have received a lot of calls from other school districts, I'm just not at liberty to name them until the deals are done. In fact, we are getting calls asking about entire sage schools. It seems the local buzz about modular classrooms in recent times has begun moving parents and teachers to pressure their school districts for better classrooms and we are seeing that shift in the numbers of districts inquiring about the classroom.
How many competitors does the SAGE have that are also trying to provide schools with sustainable and natural-light-filled classrooms, or are you alone locally?
In Oregon, we are not seeing a lot of options in green classrooms, which is why we began this process and why the governor's initiative (Oregon Solutions) was excited to support it. That doesn't mean that other companies don't offer greener upgrade possibilities to their clients; it's just that a comprehensive design that takes a lot of the guesswork out of the decision-making process for schools that don't have the time and resources to devote to that, hasn't been offered or it hasn't hit the right price point.
With respect to the cost issue, as you can imagine it is difficult to compare as it depends on options chosen etc. Suffice to say that the classroom starts around $100/105 per square foot and can be anywhere from 20 percent more ( as in Portland) to twice the cost of the cheapest options. Of course, the buildings last twice as long and use half as much energy and offer amenities not found in most classrooms like energy recovery ventilation, low velocity fans, lots of windows, vaulted ceilings and solar powered ventilators.