Inside the green schools revolution

How can we design better, ‘living’ classrooms, places that will not only improve the lives of teachers and students, but also have less of an impact on the environment? Bryn Nelson goes back to school to find out.

 

It begins with a girl from Oregon. She is eight years old, and crying.

At the edge of suburbia, her grandfather’s woods with her favourite climbing trees and ‘green sky’ trees for reading are being clear-cut for a new housing development where she and her mother will be forced to live.

She will be an architect, she tells her mother through her tears. One who can build homes without killing the trees.

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Bertschi Private School

Twenty years later, two girls and a boy are pointing out a dry streambed and a towering bank of plants bathed in daylight. They are 10 or 11 years old, and talking excitedly, all at once, about the things they love the most. The plants climbing an 18-foot wall are purifying the air and treating used water, while the pebbled streambed carries new rainwater to a cistern beneath a ‘living building’: an airy classroom designed to function as efficiently as a flower.

Stacy Smedley, the girl from Oregon, became an architect after all, and helped to build this science wing for the private Bertschi School in Seattle. The classroom has the lifespan of a tree, is mainly lit by the sun, collects its own water, and excludes a long ‘red list’ of potentially harmful materials such as mercury, formaldehyde and polyvinyl chloride. Best of all, Smedley says, the kids helped design it themselves.

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Bertschi Private School Living EcoSystem

They’re among the lucky ones. Teachers, parents, politicians and researchers routinely cite a long list of factors that can interfere with a quality education. The dangers of asbestos and lead in older school buildings have been documented for years. Among the external threats, pesticides can stray from adjacent fields, while pollutants drift from nearby roads. Until recently, however, relatively few observers focused on the overall environmental quality of the interior spaces where, apart from their own homes, children spend most of their time.

As evidence mounts that factors such as poor ventilation, inadequate daylight, and exposure to chemicals and microbes can harm both learning and health, a movement linking well-designed classrooms to the wellbeing of students is gaining momentum. But by adopting short-term solutions to overcrowding and underfunding – such as cheaply constructed and poorly maintained portable classrooms – many schools are only making the problem worse.

It’s not a new idea, but still a radical notion to many: What if classrooms and other public buildings designed to minimise their environmental impact also maximised the health of their occupants, whether students or workers?

‘Living building’ classrooms are meant to do both. They must have operable windows that provide ready access to air and light. And, in response to concerns that some rating systems have done little to verify that ‘green’ buildings work as intended, certification comes only if they demonstrate their mettle after a full year.

Drawing upon these spaces as inspiration, Smedley and two collaborators are designing living portable classrooms, called SEEDs. With the enthusiastic assistance of school kids from Jasper, Alberta, who wanted a living classroom of their own, the team designed a prototype in 2013. It features a faux tree for hanging artwork, a swing for swinging and a living wall for growing herbs and tomatoes.

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SEED “Living” classroom interior

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SEED “Living” Classroom Exterior

A year later the nonprofit SEED (Sustainable Education Every Day) Collaborative sold its prototype to the private Perkins School in Seattle – the first of what Smedley and her colleagues hope will be “hundreds of little green sprouts” around the world.

You don’t have to go far, though, to see what she might call a “bad seed”.

In a 2013 report card on US infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers nearly failed the nation’s public school buildings for their overall condition. For the 2012/13 school year, the US Department of Education asked public schools to rate how 17 building components were faring. The worst categories, rated as only fair or poor by roughly one-third of all respondents, included windows, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Strikingly, the 31 per cent of schools that reported using portable classrooms gave lower ratings to every one of the components in those buildings. The very worst? Windows, doors and exterior lighting.

Depending on the country, these structures may be known as portables or transportables, demountables or relocatables, huts, mobiles or terrapins. Unhealthy and unsafe conditions can plague classrooms of all kinds, of course, but a growing number of architects and advocates have zeroed in on these buildings as prime examples of the troubling conditions found in some schools. The challenge, for them, is to transform one of the worst kinds of spaces into one of the best.

Most of these “vinyl-wrapped boxes” filled with kids, Smedley says, offer little natural light and are among the worst offenders for poor indoor air quality. The 2004 California Portable Classrooms Study, one of the few studies to focus on environmental health in such spaces, affirmed that they are plagued with more heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems than their traditional counterparts, including excessive noise and uncomfortable temperatures.

The researchers found worrisome flaws in both kinds of classrooms, such as serious deficiencies in the outdoor air exchange, and attributed some of the faults to improper operation and maintenance of ventilation systems. Portables, however, lagged behind in multiple other measures as well, including having lower levels of light and higher levels of formaldehyde, airborne particles, visible ceiling mould, and water stains on the floor.

Tom Hardiman, Executive Director of the Modular Building Institute (MBI), maintains that many of these failings could be remedied through proper use, maintenance or location of portable classrooms. He points with pride to newly designed and more efficient classrooms being built by a range of manufacturers.

Better designs, of course, often come with a higher price tag. In an industry fact sheet, the MBI notes that schools often acquire “the minimally acceptable code compliant classroom due to cost constraints”.

Tight budgets and expanding enrolments may in fact be fuelling the recent surge in portable classroom sales. Rough estimates suggest that schools are now using at least 300,000 portable classrooms in the USA alone, with thousands more on order. In overcrowded districts in Florida, California and elsewhere, some schools consist entirely of these built-to-order units. In the UK, portable classroom manufacturer Portakabin reported record sales in 2013, fuelled by a demographic boom that has hit London the hardest.

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Portable Classrooms

Because they are less expensive to build and install than permanent structures, portable classrooms give cash-strapped communities a more affordable option for alleviating overcrowding.

Compared to permanent structures, however, most existing portable models cost more to secure, heat, cool, light, clean and maintain. And while they’re portable in theory, classrooms are rarely moved because of the serious structural problems that can arise, and the added expense of building new ramps and foundations and hooking up utilities upon reassembly.

Long after they’ve lived out their useful lives, some portables are sold on eBay. Others end up as repurposed affordable homes, while rumours swirl of portable classroom ‘graveyards’ for those that simply can’t be revived.

But many stand their ground, hunkering by parking lots or fields long after their recommended expiry date of 10 to 20 years. The public is under the “strange illusion” that portable classrooms are temporary structures, says Margarette Leite, an architect based in Portland, Oregon. In practice, they aren’t. “Nobody wants portable classrooms to be the answer, but they are,” she says. “And they’re not going away.”

There’s that nagging voice that tells you we’ve been here before.

In 1901 New York’s Tenement House Act required all bedrooms in newly constructed tenement buildings to have direct access to fresh air and light. The law took its cue in part from the sanatoriums sprouting throughout the countryside of North America and Europe – many emphasising the importance of rest, sunshine, healthy food and clean air for treating tuberculosis and other lung ailments.

Lindsay Baker, a graduate student in the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, has documented the concern of early educational reformers over the dark and dank ‘factory-like’ classrooms that sprang up after the Industrial Revolution.

By the turn of the century, schoolroom designers were crafting increasingly detailed plans that emphasised natural light and ventilation. Given the relative dearth of electric lighting, the first was a necessity, while it was initially hoped that the latter would dilute body odour amid the swelling ranks of students.

As classroom designs increased in sophistication, Baker notes, a writer in 1910 cautioned his colleagues to remember “that no artificial heating and ventilation can ever take the place of fresh outdoor air and sunshine”.

Several decades later, his words would fall on deaf ears.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Baker writes, leading architects actually expanded the emphasis on air, light and outdoor learning, as part of what would become known as the ‘open air school’ movement. After World War II, as student populations began to skyrocket, more modern and affordable buildings – albeit ones with shorter life expectancies – started taking hold. Even then, designs such as California’s famous ‘finger-plan’ schools, with individual corridors that splayed out from a central hub, maximised each classroom’s access to light, air and the outdoors.

Amid the rise of technology, though, builders began to assert that they could seal schools and control their indoor environments more precisely using air conditioners. Some architects and researchers in the 1960s even argued that windowless schools had no negative impacts on pupils and were actually beneficial because they reduced heating, cooling and maintenance costs.

Researchers documented widespread dissatisfaction among teachers and students in these windowless, bunker-like spaces, but didn’t consider it important because there was no apparent effect on test scores.

Many design principles dating back to the turn of the century were, in fact, largely abandoned. Windows and skylights, once essential, became maintenance and security risks, while architects argued that more constant fluorescent light would prevent eyestrain. High ceilings and expansive windows clashed with air conditioners, and economists argued that it was cheaper to build classrooms back to back.

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Windowless Classrooms

A misguided response to the oil embargo of the early 1970s only compounded the problem. Building designers reasoned that they could improve energy efficiency by making buildings more airtight, relying more on interior air recirculation instead of exterior ventilation. The result: trapped mould and volatile chemicals.

Paula Baker-Laporte, an architect based in Ashland, Oregon, fell seriously ill in 1981, soon after she and her husband moved into a new mobile home. Eleven years later, a doctor linked her chronic lung ailments to high levels of formaldehyde seeping out from the mobile home’s interior.

Researchers now know that the volatile organic compound – commonly found in furniture, plywood and other materials that use glue or binding agents to hold the pieces together – can cause headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes and respiratory difficulties. It is also a major ingredient of what people readily recognise as that ‘new-car smell’. The fray over formaldehyde

“I didn’t understand that I was getting chemically sensitive; what I knew was that suddenly in my lungs, I was getting pneumonia all the time,” Baker-Laporte says.

One day, in her misery, she had an ‘Aha!’ moment: “If it’s bad for me, what about all the other people living in it?” In her ensuing quest to construct healthier homes, she came upon a set of 25 design principles under the banner of Baubiologie, or Building Biology, a movement that took root in Germany after World War II.

The movement’s founders had grown alarmed at the rise in illnesses that closely tracked the postwar building boom and use of mass-produced materials. In response, Building Biology declared nature to be the gold standard for a human environment, and emphasized the relationship between buildings, or our “third skin”, and both health and ecology. Among its principles it promoted natural materials, good indoor air quality and pleasing proportions. “A building that does not poison you,” Baker-Laporte says, “is not the same as a building that deeply nurtures you.”

Many school buildings in the USA, she has learned, can be corrosive third skins. When she first visited her daughter’s high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with its moldy smell and dark water stains on the ceiling, she came home and cried.

The lack of attention to poor schoolroom design and maintenance may be attributable, in part, to a limitation of science: the impacts of buildings on their occupants can be notoriously difficult to single out and quantify.

Since its introduction in 1983 by the World Health Organization, ‘sick building syndrome’ has been a controversial catch-all phrase, used to describe symptoms ranging from persistent coughing, headaches and dizziness to nausea and sudden sensitivity to multiple chemicals.

Researchers can seldom point out the exact cause or offer specific treatments – other than avoiding the building entirely. Was an illness due to toxic chemicals or mould? Was it inadequate ventilation, fluctuating temperatures or bad lighting? Organisations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency now prefer phrases like ‘indoor environmental quality’, but the rebranding has done little to clarify actual cause and effect.

Varying genetic susceptibility to certain conditions, such as asthma or pneumonia, can complicate efforts to locate a source of trouble, while environmental factors can alleviate or compound the risk. In other words, people within the same building may react very differently to the same toxin or irritant, such as Baker-Laporte and her unaffected husband. And until recently, most studies failed to consider how these factors might specifically impact children. “Kids are not little adults, right?” says Megan Sandel, a paediatrician and public health expert at Boston University. The distinction might be obvious, but it’s a point that she finds herself repeating often.

Children have a higher lung-to-body ratio, by volume, than adults, meaning that anything they breathe in will be present in their bodies in proportionately higher amounts. Also, because water makes up a higher percentage of their body mass, they hold on to toxins for longer. And, their brains are still developing, meaning that they have lower thresholds for tolerating neurotoxins than a fully developed brain.

So why have so few studies looked directly at how physical spaces impact kids? For starters, occupational health is far more regulated around the world than school health, which means fewer attempts at biomonitoring, inspections and investigations take place in schools than in workplaces.

Testing the health and comfort of classroom occupants is also highly contentious. Ten years ago researchers at the Florida Solar Energy Center presented a side-by-side comparison of standard portable classrooms and the Center’s own Performance Enhanced Relocatable Classroom (PERC) units. At one test site, in Orlando, Florida, the elementary school campus consisted entirely of portables.

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The Center designed its PERC units – also tested at schools in New York and North Carolina – to use less energy, have improved air quality and enhanced levels of natural lighting. The new models all proved more energy efficient, with the ones in Florida beating their counterparts by 65 per cent. But study co-author Stephanie Thomas-Rees, a research architect at the Center, says she and her colleagues weren’t allowed to evaluate the impact of the light and air enhancements on student performance. Instead, she could only ask teachers “off-the-record” questions.

“That is the nature of the beast,” she writes in an email, explaining that no parents would want to know that their child was stuck in a classroom alongside one with better features. She and her colleagues recognise the benefits of improved air and daylight to students, she says. “It’s just a sensitive subject when you are dealing with limited school facility budgets compounded with overpopulated schools, underpaid teachers and rising electric prices.”

Mark Mendell, a staff scientist/epidemiologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, says it’s been hard to find school districts that will agree to participate in his studies of ventilation rates, “because they’re just worried that we’ll find out something that will not reflect well”. Portland architect Leite and her husband, Sergio Palleroni, also “didn’t want to rock the boat” in order to preserve their working relationship with a school district, and refrained from publishing findings that suggested a portable classroom had poor indoor air quality.

If these observational studies are fraught, it’s not hard to imagine the uproar over a randomised controlled trial. “In environmental health, you’re not going to be able to randomise one kid to a toxic classroom, and randomise another kid to a nontoxic classroom, and see what happens,” Sandel says.

Despite the lack of schoolroom data, studies of kids in other spaces may be filling in some of the blanks. In 2002 Sandel testified in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the State of California. In Williams v. State of California the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the state had failed to ensure an adequate learning environment for its students, particularly those in low-income and minority communities.

Sandel, who studies the impact of conditions at home on kids’ health, recalls being “hammered” by the state’s lawyers on how she could apply conclusions from studies focused on housing to a schoolroom environment. “What I said there is that if it’s bad for you in your house, it’s going to bad for you in your school,” Sandel says. “There’s nothing to suggest that rats in your house are bad, but rats in your school are okay.”

The same might be said for lead paint, asbestos, mercury and other established toxins, while Sandel says evidence is mounting on how noise, mould, pests and other exposures at home can also harm kids. In fact, she says, recent studies suggest that exposure to some irritants such as allergens may be even worse in schools. (As part of a nearly $1 billion settlement to resolve the Williams v. California case in 2004, the state agreed to allocate $800 million for critical repairs to school facilities.)

Some illnesses that might have been shunted off as sick building syndrome in the past are now being more definitively reclassified as ‘building-related illness’ and blamed on known causes such as mould or formaldehyde. The science of interior spaces is starting to take off.

One co-conspirator, research suggests, may be inadequate ventilation. Talk to enough architects and researchers and you will hear a recurring story about schools’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems – especially in portable classrooms. One version of the story goes like this:

Kids in an enclosed space are like little furnaces. Most HVAC systems struggle to expel the excess energy and condition the incoming air, requiring them to operate at higher fan speeds.

Many of these fans become so loud that students can’t hear the teacher. So the teacher turns off the system. And then it fails to heat, ventilate or condition the air. The students can now hear, but can’t think, the story goes. In a widely cited study of portable classrooms in California, 60 per cent of teachers said they regularly turned off the noisy units.

Modular building manufacturers say they’ve worked with acoustical experts to address the noise issue, and that improper placement of many structures has contributed to their ventilation woes. “I can’t tell you how often we have seen classrooms placed in parking lots near idling buses and cars,” says Hardiman from the Modular Building Institute.

Relocation, of course, isn’t always possible. A 2012 study found that schools near London’s Heathrow Airport are more likely to be overheated and have poor indoor air quality – in large part because teachers close the windows, the main source of ventilation, to reduce aircraft noise.

Derek Clements-Croome, Professor Emeritus of Architectural Engineering at Reading University in the UK, led one of the few efforts to assess directly how inadequate ventilation might have an impact on student performance. For a 2012 study he and his colleagues picked eight primary schools around Reading. In each they installed identical-looking natural ventilation systems in two classrooms. In the first room the system actively brought in fresh air. In the second it only recirculated the interior air.

The team recorded far higher levels of carbon dioxide in the latter group of classrooms. And tests overseen by a psychologist on the team found that the children in these classrooms had significantly more trouble remembering the relative position of six pictures shown briefly on a screen or recognising a non-word among four choices.

The authors recommended that classrooms should offer at least eight litres of fresh air per second per person. Clements-Croome also suggests that schools install a carbon dioxide monitor to track levels.

In his own study Mark Mendell from Lawrence Berkeley saw significantly higher absenteeism rates in classrooms with lower ventilation. Research in other high-density buildings, from nursing homes to jails, has suggested that decreased ventilation rates correlate with increased respiratory problems.

School funding in the USA is based on average attendance figures, meaning that the financial impacts of unhealthy schools might be measurable if researchers could definitively link decreased funding to increased student absences due to illness – no easy task. Mendell and others have suggested that if the connection bears out in kids, raising ventilation rates could more than pay for itself by significantly reducing illness-related absences.

Poor ventilation, on its own, doesn’t necessarily harm a room’s occupants. Rather, researchers say, it may fail to dilute any harmful substances that already exist in the air. Carbon dioxide levels have become a common proxy for assessing how well a ventilation system can remove such pollutants. But not everyone is convinced that the method is reliable, or that carbon dioxide itself is a significant contributor to the air pollution problem.

Despite the uncertainty, carbon dioxide is at least on the radar of researchers. An overwhelming majority of chemicals are not.

According to the Green Science Policy Institute, an estimated 80,000 chemicals are now on the market in consumer products. Many are used in building materials. Roughly 85 per cent have no publically available health data. And about 67 per cent have no known data at all.

Organisations like the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute have begun pushing companies to openly declare their ingredient lists. “Shouldn’t we demand the same information from the materials we buy as from the food we eat?” says James Connelly, the Institute’s Living Building Challenge coordinator.

As part of the Challenge, in which building manufacturers enter projects for various green certifications, entrants are prohibited from using roughly 500 items already linked to health concerns.

It’s not just about weeding out the worst aspects of a physical environment, however. Recent studies have suggested that limiting some of the best aspects – such as daylight – can also have a profound negative impact.

Most artificial lights skew toward the red-wavelength end of the visible light spectrum. But in reviewing the consequences of what he calls “our increasing detachment from the sun”, circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster at the University of Oxford in the UK describes how a key photoreceptor in the eye responds more powerfully to the blue wavelengths of daylight.

This light detection system, part of the primitive circadian system charged with regulating our daily rhythms, evolved independently of vision. Within specialised cells a light-sensitive pigment called Opn4 uses blue light (very similar to the ‘blue’ of a clear blue sky, Foster notes) as a cue that signals the brain to suppress the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and encourage the alertness-promoting hormone serotonin.

With bright sunshine delivering up to 500 times as much illumination as artificial lights, the natural blue in sunlight is unsurprisingly a far stronger stimulus than what might be found in blue hues of LEDs and other newer lights.

“We live our lives in dim caves,” Foster writes. “Modern architectural design has the opportunity, by letting light into our lives, to liberate humanity from the gloom and [allow] our bodies to use the natural pattern of light and dark to optimise our biology.”

Daylight also produces an unpredictable sparkle effect that a regularly oscillating fluorescent tube cannot match. Because our primitive brain associates the random glint of light bouncing off multiple surfaces with being outside, it delivers an urgent message to the body to be alert. In other words, students are more likely to stay awake in a naturally lit classroom.

Several studies have shown an association between daylight and student performance, though to varying degrees. Perhaps the best known, conducted by the California-based Heschong Mahone Group, found higher scores on standardised maths and reading tests in classrooms with more daylight. (They also found, however, that the positive effects of daylight could be negated by poor design.)

Multiple research papers have likewise supported the healing and stress-relieving benefits of light in hospital settings, while work by environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen has suggested that daylight delivers a potent psychological boost. Medical research has also directly contradicted one past justification for windowless rooms by suggesting that long-distance views – such as through a nearby window – can help alleviate eyestrain.

Although different in name and style, multiple movements are converging on a conviction that buildings should promote health rather than harm it, and that the personal wellbeing of those inside – whether staff or students – need not come at the expense of the environment outside.

David Eyer, a building designer based in Prague, brought the Baubiologie movement to the Czech Republic about a decade ago. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the country was finally free to begin thinking about architecture that aspired to something beyond the paneláks, the huge, boxy ‘panel houses’ that still dominate Prague’s periphery. Beyond brutalism. Or minimalism.

Just steps from Prague’s bustling Old Town Square, Eyer sits on a small stoop and points out the stately, centuries-old buildings surrounding the decidedly more tranquil Ungelt Square. Each is solid, imperfect, proportionate, inspiring, he says. It’s one of his favourite spots in the city. A strong centre like this one, he says, acts like an anchor and lets you create around it.

Eyer is now working on his doctorate, with a thesis on vitality in architectural spaces. A kindergarten whose construction he oversaw in a nearby village called Sluštice features natural materials, two main rooms filled with daylight, and a big central courtyard where the youngsters can play. His wife Jitka wanted to cry when she first saw it. “She knew it would be so good for the kids,” he recalls.

He has never heard of a portable classroom.

In the UK the ambitious £55 billion Building Schools for the Future programme emphasised rebuilding or remodelling existing secondary schools to enhance student learning and safety. The programme, however, was scrapped in 2010 due to cost overruns and charges of massive bureaucracy and waste.

A study conducted in response to the controversy, led by Peter Barrett at Manchester’s University of Salford, suggested that classroom design does, in fact, have an impact on student performance. So far, the study of more than 3,700 pupils in three cities has found that 17 per cent of the variation in learning rates may be attributable to physical factors within a classroom. Among them: indoor air quality, ambient light, and whether the space is moderately stimulating or awash in visual clutter.

The take-home message, he says, is that making a big impact on learning may not require a fancy design – only a well-considered one.

Other studies suggest that even small changes can deliver dividends. In a 2012 study researchers found that houseplants improved the indoor air quality within a primary school classroom in Portugal, in particular by reducing carbon dioxide and volatile organic compound levels. The results are in line with previous findings by NASA.

Doing away with all inferior classroom spaces may be impossible in the short term. But the knowledge and technology exists to dramatically improve many of their deficiencies. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the growing efforts of collaboratives and companies (with names like SEED, SAGE, Project Frog and Gen7) to redesign portables. Given their smaller size and lower cost, portables are proving to be an increasingly attractive test bed for innovative classroom features.

Leite and Palleroni, architects at Portland State University, joined the movement to redesign portables after learning that their school-age daughter’s class would be moving into one. “It took a very personal note for us,” Palleroni says.

A dozen of their SAGE classrooms – short for Smart Academic Green Environment – have been deployed in schools in the states of Oregon and Washington. While the structures’ energy needs have been reduced significantly, Palleroni says the major focus has been on daylight and fresh air because of their “huge” role in influencing health and performance.

The designers are all well aware of the severe cost constraints faced by school districts, many of which routinely beg parents for basic supplies. As part of their pitch, then, the architects have taken pains to point out the long-term savings of new alternatives, whose average upfront purchase and installation costs run 30 to 100 per cent higher than those of traditional models.

Unencumbered by any utility bills, Smedley says, a SEED classroom in Seattle would start saving the school district money after 11 years – about half the typical lifespan of a portable. Each SEED has been designed to last 100.

Changing the trajectory has become more urgent for her as well. Her son, Jack, is now three years old, and could be in a portable classroom in just two years. “He’s a constant reminder of the work I need to do,” she says.

This summer, Smedley was invited to join a subcommittee tasked with advising Washington state on whether prefabricated classrooms built to last at least 30 years should be recognised more as permanent, ‘modular’ structures rather than as temporary, portable ones. In her ongoing struggle to get her units into public schools, “that’s the first big glimpse of hope,” she says.

Again and again, the people who lament our culture of impermanence use the same phrase in their arguments for better classrooms: “built to last”. The schools of old were far from perfect, they concede. But their Roman columns and stately neoclassical or Queen Anne facades reflected the importance that cities and nations attached to education. “Now, we put our kids in these little boxes, and we figure, ‘Oh, they’re only there temporarily and they don’t care,’” Leite says. “But children are relying on adults to make those kinds of decisions, and I think we’ve fallen apart on them.”

Here is another classroom of girls and boys: they are 10 and 11 years old, and trying not to talk all at once about the things they love the most. One by one, the 20 or so fourth and fifth graders at Seattle’s Perkins School are presenting their polished adverts in matching white picture frames – some in 184-point type and many in bright colours.

All are focused on selling other schools a SEED portable like the one that Smedley and her colleagues delivered to their small campus. In the autumn it will become their new science classroom.

“I’m using facts to prove that the SEED building is cool,” says one girl.

Another points out the speech bubble in her advert that says, “I can focus more because it’s not stuffy.”

“Regular portable materials poison the atmosphere,” says a boy.

Another boy emphasises the composting toilets. “It’s kind of a big deal,” he says. Other classmates favour the sun-reflecting skylights, the swing, the wall of plants, the solar panels.

It ends with boys and girls from Canada. The kids in the Jasper Sustainability Club for Youth who helped the SEED Collaborative design its prototype, who planned the floor themselves with a pattern of multicoloured carpet squares that look like an aerial view of the province’s grassland, farmland, rivers and mountains, are still waiting for a SEED to call their own.

In the meantime, however, their district has found the funds to build a permanent secondary school that will share space with a French-language school. Featuring day-lit rooms with mountain views, a rooftop garden, living walls, an outdoor classroom and other design ideas from the youth group, the environmentally friendly building opened in September 2014.

Amid the trembling aspen and Douglas firs of Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, a new school with room for 525 kids has been built to last. And on the site of the old 1950s-era school next to it, the town will reclaim some green space – by building a new park. 

Author, Bryn Nelson

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

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