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Thoroughly modern modular

Architect, entrepreneur seek to spark a 'green' revolution in classroom design

Natural light and superior acoustics at Carrol School in Lincoln permit multiple one-on-one tutorials in the classroom. (Erik Jacobs Photo for The Boston Globe) Natural light and superior acoustics at Carrol School in Lincoln permit multiple one-on-one tutorials in the classroom.
By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / April 6, 2009
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Ask any student assigned to a modular classroom: The cramped units' boxy shapes, cut-rate aesthetics, and inadequate cooling and heating can make them feel more like prisons than schools.

But an entrepreneur and an architect who are looking to spark a "green" revolution in school design are giving modular classrooms a radical revamping. Their version harnesses sunlight to all but replace electric light and uses a garden-top green roof to dispel heat in summer. They have plenty of room, excellent acoustics, and eye-catching designs, too.

Cliff Cort, president of Triumph Modular, a construction company in Littleton, has teamed up with California architect Peter Anderson on a proposal to build a modular day-care center that will effectively reduce energy bills to zero. It will be the third generation of high-tech modular classroom designs produced by Triumph over the past three years.

The company's timing is especially good - it's moving ahead just as the Obama administration prepares to pump billions of dollars into renewable energy, and as cash-strapped school districts scramble to cut energy costs.

But the would-be revolutionaries face challenges. While some schools are embracing the idea of a high-quality classroom alternative, others see modulars as a temporary, cheap solution to overcrowding, Cort said.

"It's the towns themselves that are responsible" for the substandard modulars, he said, "because they don't ask for something more high-quality."

Still, modular buildings have an inherent strength that is catching the attention of architects: flexibility of design and construction that allows for features that would be much more costly in a traditional classroom.

Triumph's units, made in Pennsylvania, accommodate rooftop solar panels. They are also designed to make it easy to add systems to capture and magnify natural light, from skylights to light tunnels. And they are made of green materials, from recycled steel and gypsum board to linoleum.

But those features carry a significant price tag. The company's recently introduced Case 21 model - a permanent modular classroom with a concrete foundation - costs about $250 a square foot to build and install, said Scott Dunlap, principal of Architecture Involution LLC in Wayland, who helped develop the model. That's about the same as a traditional school classroom. At 1,000 square feet, that's $250,000. But the Case 21 is about 10 percent larger than a traditional classroom and can comfortably hold 25 students.

The savings come from reduced energy consumption. The Case 21 uses 30 percent less energy than a traditional classroom, Dunlap said, for a total of about $2,500 annually. Moreover, the units can be equipped with more sophisticated insulation and heating and ventilation systems to further cut energy bills. Carbon dioxide sensors, for example, can detect how many students are in a room and tailor air flow accordingly.

Anderson is looking to take those energy savings to a new level. He is working with officials in Hawaii on a modular classroom that would not only be energy self-sufficient, but may produce surplus power.

In Massachusetts, Anderson is teaming up with Triumph to use a similar design for a university day-care center. Producing more power than the modulars use might be difficult, given Massachusetts' climate, but Anderson said it's possible for modulars to at least conserve as much energy as they use.

The Hawaii version uses solar panels to generate heat and electricity; the New England model may have a backup electric heating system, as well as a roof that uses vegetation to dispel summer heat and absorb rainwater.

The new style of energy-efficient modulars can be found in Lincoln at Carroll School, a small private school. Three years ago, Triumph joined Philip Laird, of Architectural Resources Cambridge, to design a classroom for Carroll. Natural light is magnified, so electric lights are hardly used; the gas heating and ventilation system can barely be heard, headmaster Steve Wilkins said. Top-notch acoustics, he said, allow for one-on-one tutorials in a classroom.

"In so many ways it is the best space on campus," Wilkins said. "It's just such an unusual thing to say about temporary modular space."

Despite such success, Laird said, it will be difficult to change perceptions: "There is a bias against modular building that will take time to break down."

Modular classroom

Modular classroom

See photos from inside a "green" school in Lincoln.