Given enough time and complacency, many structures that were designed to be cheap and temporary end up becoming permanent, as can be seen in the thousands of nearly unchanging trailer parks across the country. A similar trend is happening at cash-strapped grade schools nationwide, where overcrowding has forced schools to install an estimated 300,000 portable classrooms, many of which have become virtually permanent despite long-outliving their designed life cycles.
A new program called Sprout Space, created by architecture firm Perkins+Will, is expected to address the growing demand for inexpensive, easy-to-build classroom space that is modular for flexibility, yet provides a comfortable, energy-efficient learning environment for an indefinite period. In January, the company completed the first Sprout Space unit, which will be on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., starting in early March.
The 7.5 million students nationwide who are currently taught in shabby, temporary classroom trailers tend to have lower standardized test scores, according to Perkins+Will, due to the poor lighting, air quality and acoustics of the temporary trailers.
With the Sprout Space units, however, each classroom includes large bi-fold doors that can open the class up to the outdoor environment, if desired, or seal out cold and inclement weather. Skylights and clerestory windows along the tops of the walls provide lots of natural daylight, reducing the need for electric lighting, even on cloudy days.
Inside each classroom, fabric-covered HVAC ducts produce quiet climate control, while noise-absorbing acoustic tiles on the ceiling help reduce distracting echoes. To save on costs and materials, the interior walls come with pre-installed dry-erase boards and thumbtack bulletin boards. All classroom tables, chairs and other furniture use low-VOC-emitting materials and paints.
The unique butterfly-shaped roof is angled so that more sunlight can enter the classrooms along the edges while rainwater is funneled into cisterns, which the students can use to irrigate gardens located on the sides of each unit. Rooftop solar panels will also link to a real-time website that students can use to monitor the energy being generated and use throughout the building.
The exterior walls of the classrooms are partially lined with rain screen panels that allow the natural airflow to cool the buildings via natural evaporation. In other outside sections, dry-erase panels are also included in case teachers want to conduct classes in an outdoor environment.
Perkins+Will’s design for the eco-modular classrooms won the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge award from Architecture for Humanity. Tests on the units’ air quality and energy production systems will begin this year, the company said. If all goes well, the Chattahoochee Hills Charter School, about 30 miles outside of Atlanta, is expected to be the first permanent K-12 installation of the Sprout Space units later in the year.