SPROUT SPACE: The Green List

HVAC LG VRF Multi-V mini heat pump, RenewAire EV450 energy recovery unit
Lighting LED down lights, occupancy sensors, daylight sensors, and controls by Acuity Brands
Plumbing Fixtures Toto EcoPower faucets and Flushometer ADA toilet
Flooring Forbo Flooring Systems Marmoleum tiles
Acoustical Ceiling Tile/Grid USG Corporation
Windows/Doors Kawneer Trifab 451 system
Insulation Guardian Building Products batt and rigid insulation
Wall Framing Over 50 percent FSC-certified lumber
Exterior Wall Surface James Hardie panel fiber cement rainscreen
Walk-Off Mat Interface SuperFlor carpet tiles
Decking Bison Innovative Products modular wood decking

According to the Modular Building Institute, there are approximately 300,000 portable classrooms currently in use across the United States. More than half of these units are located in California, Florida, and Texas (three of the four most populous states). As school budgets were slashed and classrooms became increasingly overcrowded, these modular learning environments seemed like inexpensive, temporary fixes; instead, many have turned into permanent problems, posing serious health risks to the eight million children who learn in them each day.

Although most modular classrooms are built to be used for a mere two years—after which they begin developing structural problems that lead to leaks that can cause mold—the average age of a temporary classroom facility is 19 years. The pressed wood and vinyl that often compose the insides of these structures emit dangerous fumes, and traces of pesticides, arsenic, and mold are commonplace. Scientists studying portable classrooms in California found that the air contained formaldehyde fumes and higher than normal concentrations of carbon dioxide. They estimate that more than 60 percent of these classrooms are way past their shelf life.

Adding to this concerning realization is that children are highly susceptible to respiratory issues because their bodies are still developing; kids breathe more air, pound for pound, than adults. Kids also are lower to the ground, putting them closer to the pollutants, and younger children spend a great deal of their time in classrooms sitting on the floor, where they directly contact the materials most likely to make them sick.

All of this disturbing information was swirling around in Allen Post’s head when he and his fellow Perkins+Will colleagues submitted a modular classroom design to the 2009 Classroom of the Future competition held by Architecture for Humanity. Post, a father of three, works in the firm’s K-12 education group, and modular design has been on his radar since he was a student at Columbia’s graduate school of architecture and spent a month in South Africa studying modular construction techniques.

Perkins+Will’s submission won the Architecture for Humanity award, and Post’s design eventually led to a game-changing initiative: Sprout Space, a sustainable modular classroom solution that addresses issues of resiliency, self-sufficiency, mobility, and indoor air quality in learning environments. Launched at the beginning of 2013 in partnership with Triumph Modular, the distributor, and Mark Line Industries, the modular building company, Sprout Space classrooms are built in a controlled environment and can be transported to any school in the United States, reducing costs and construction time (the latter on average by 40 percent) and resulting in less construction waste, longer building life, and the elimination of mold growth during construction. Plus, the classrooms generate all their own energy.

The three double doors at the rear of the modular classroom lead to an outdoor deck, which creates extra space, brings in tons of fresh air, and makes it easy to have outdoor lessons.

The three double doors at the rear of the modular classroom lead to an outdoor deck, which creates extra space, brings in tons of fresh air, and makes it easy to have outdoor lessons.

Sprout Space is designed to encourage various teaching styles and seating arrangements, impromptu collaboration, and outdoor learning through the addition of exterior teaching walls and its set of three all-glass double doors. Besides being a health nightmare, Post believes that the average modular classroom is not at all conducive to learning. Most are nothing more than a claustrophobic box, dark and poorly ventilated with a small window or two at the most—and that’s what he really set out to change.

“There’s no denying that the modular classrooms currently on many schools’ campuses are harmful to children’s health, but many modulars do not even serve the basic requirements for learning,” Post says. “A healthy learning environment should be a basic requirement for any classroom because the classroom environment has a direct impact on learning. Studies show that a well-designed classroom with plenty of natural light helps children be more attentive and engaged—it’s just a happier environment all around.”

Although it’s true that greener modular classrooms aren’t a new thing, it’s an entirely different ball game when a world-class design firm begins offering a high-performance option specifically designed by school experts. Sprout Space classrooms are the only modular classrooms with the ability to expand the learning space to the outside, are designed to LEED specifications, and meet LEED for Schools’ fresh air requirement for classrooms. The classrooms contain no harmful off-gassing materials or formaldehyde and feature cutting-edge sustainable features and fixtures, such as LED down lights, occupancy sensors, daylight sensors, and controls from Acuity Brands, and Toto EcoPower faucets and flushometer toilets.

Perhaps the most ingenious feature is the classroom itself—it’s designed to be used as a real-life teaching tool. “The butterfly-shaped roof enables the classroom to catch rainwater, which can be turned into a lesson itself, and the water can even be used for the classroom garden,” Post says. “There are marker and tack boards inside and outside with the hope being that it encourages teachers and students to go outside and make the outdoors just as big a part of their learning environment as the indoors. The students can also learn about the features of their classroom. All of the ductwork is made out of fabric, so you can see it expand and contract as fresh air enters the classroom. It’s quiet, so it doesn’t distract, but this is yet another learning feature that encourages them to study their environment.”

Sprout Space’s $120 per square foot price tag is incredibly affordable, especially considering the amenities and customizable features, not to mention the 90-day turnaround time. Even though Sprout Space has only been available for a year, Post receives about five inquiries a week and is already talking to 10 schools about the green modular classrooms. Perkins+Will’s design also has received attention from a few countries outside the United States whose education departments are looking to invest in high-performance modular classrooms. “That would be a huge success,” Post says. “We’re talking about changing the educational dynamics of an entire country. If we can turn the tide and influence the creation of more high-quality, eco-friendly, healthy, sustainable modular classrooms, I think we’ve done our job.”