So How Did All of These Buildings Get Here Anyway?

Modular structures – buildings that are pre-fabricated in a factory and brought to the site in modules – are not new inventions. They have been around for decades. Remember the futurist Buckminster Fuller’s energy-efficient and inexpensive Dymaxion House of the 1940’s or the Sears Homes of the early 1900’s? Both of these very different looking buildings were modular. The modular building industry is slowly adopting the strategies learned from the automotive industry to increase quality while reducing cost of construction. Technology, cost, and competition are making modular construction a more viable alternative to stick-built construction. Some of the advantages of modular construction include: time savings, less site disruption, less waste, and — most importantly — cost savings.

As well-designed, prefabricated homes have become more popular, so, too, have other building types.  Schools, for example, have been using relocatable modular classrooms for years.

There are approximately 300,000 relocatable modular classrooms currently in use in the United States serving about 7 million students. Often, schools will acquire the lowest-cost, minimally code-compliant classroom, fail to properly maintain the unit, and try to utilize the classroom well beyond its useful life.  The result is a less than desirable learning environment and a negative stigma associated with all modular classrooms. (Tom Hardiman, Executive Director of Modular Building Institute)

Perkins+Will has designed and developed an evolutionary modular classroom called Sprout Space TM that incorporates many healthy, sustainable, and educational features into its design and uses many of the strategies implemented in the Solar Decathlon.  Sprout Space was designed with children’s health and various learning styles in mind.  Built from low-emitting materials, these classrooms meet the highest indoor air quality standards. A healthy learning environment equals fewer sick days, higher test scores, and happier students. (Greening American Schools Report, 2008)

Exterior perspective rendering of a Sprout Space classroom with the educational rainwater garden patio in the foreground

Sprout Space modular classroom implements sustainable yet cost-conscious building materials to create a learning environment which can be adapted to any environment. Our design incorporates ample natural daylight, which has been proven to increase test scores and retention rates with the added benefit of significantly lower utility costs (Analysis of Performance of Students in of Daylit Schools, Nicklas, Bailey). Numerous design features such as integrated rainwater collection, overhanging eaves, and sustainable materials make Sprout Space an excellent example of passive and active green building strategies.

In the case of the Solar Decathlon, many of the teams used modular construction techniques out of necessity in order to complete the difficult time constraints imposed on them. For instance, the teams were required to build or assemble their homes the first week, have them fully operational and on display the second and third week, and then dismantle them the last week. Imagine if you could have your affordable and net-zero energy dream home built and installed in under a month.

Sprout Spaces are pre-engineered, built in a factory, and able to be delivered to any site in the country. Constructing the buildings in a controlled environment has many advantages over building them on site such as: reducing cost, reducing construction time by up to 50%, less construction waste, a longer building life-cycle, and the elimination of mold growth during construction.

SS Render 2Exterior perspective rendering of a grouping of four Sprout Space classrooms from the shared outdoor learning space

Sprout Space’s modularity allows it to be flexible and well-suited for various teaching styles, seating configurations, and outdoor leaning opportunities. It is therefore unique in that it is designed specifically to enhance learning. Each classroom opens up to the outdoors through large bi-fold doors. This encourages experiential learning and complements and a variety of teaching methods. Also, the classrooms can be arranged in various configurations that best suit the client’s curriculum and site constraints.

The Solar Decathlon highlights this building evolution by showing the public that it is now possible to build an affordable, efficient, and beautiful home that is not dependent on outside sources of energy. In fact, this year marks the first year of the competition that the judges are evaluating the structures by their affordability. Solar Decathlon teams will be rewarded full points for the buildings that cost below $250,000 according to the USDOE’s website.  $250 per foot may seem pricey in some parts of the country, but it was reasonable enough for one new home buyer, who has already purchased a Solar Decathlon home off the lawn this year.  As more and more companies are developing green products and materials, the price for high-performance buildings has dropped significantly.  The increase in competition in the green building market means that the cost for modular construction has also decreased, thus making Sprout Space a very affordable option for schools, especially when the energy savings are factored into the equation.

One of the many valuable takeaways from the Solar Decathlon is the variety of possibilities in reaching the ultimate goal of energy independence. The variety in designs and strategies implemented in the competition makes an underlying statement that no one style represents a net-zero energy building. For instance, Purdue University makes a conscious effort to strive for self-reliance while designing a home in a recognizable residential vernacular. Compare their INhome to Ohio State’s enCORE House, which is much more contemporary in its design. Ohio State’s home is a more ambiguous looking building that could easily function as a commercial building. Similarly, Sprout Space TM offers the opportunity for schools to have their own net-zero buildings, customized for their specific needs.

Images courtesy of Perkins + Will

Allen Post is an architect with over 10 years of project experience, and for the last seven years he has been working primarily in the K-12 education group at Perkins+Will.  Allen has served as project architect for numerous public and private K-12 schools throughout the South-East and has managed construction on three LEED® certified schools and is currently managing a new classroom building tracking LEED certification.  Allen, with an interest in modular construction and school design, is also managing the development of Sprout Space, a new high-performance, healthy, and modular classroom that has just been released to the market and oversees construction for all Sprout Space projects. Sprout Space has won numerous awards including the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge: Best Re-locatable Classroom design competition hosted by Architecture for Humanity. He has also served as a Green Team Leader at Perkins+Will, managing and helping to implement the firm’s sustainable design goals for the Atlanta office.  Allen has a Masters of Architecture degree from Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and graduated in 2003.

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