Applying Sustainability
to Modular Classroom Design

By Philip L. Laird, AIA, LEED AP
(Mr. Laird is president of Cambridge, Mass.-based ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge, a nationally recognized architectural design firm specializing in educational, athletic and biotechnology facilities.)

Sustainable design is no longer limited to big projects. Sustainable concepts can be applied to projects of all sizes, even a 950-square-foot classroom. Designed by ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge and installed earlier this year at The Carroll School in Lincoln, Mass., this sustainable classroom has become the nation's first green modular school building.

ARC teamed up with Triumph Leasing, a Littleton, Mass.-based modular construction specialist, and NRB, Inc., a Canada and US (PA)-based developer of innovative modular building technology, to develop the green re-locatable classroom.

ARC looked at how typical modular construction is currently designed and asked ourselves how we could do it better.
Our collective goal was to design a safe, healthy, durable and environmentally friendly advanced learning structure within a realistic budget. Ultimately, the unit is designed for sustainability, flexibility, comfort and appeal.

To minimize electrical usage, our design integrated several day-lighting strategies to maximize natural light such as increased glazing utilizing exterior sun shades, interior light shelves, light-tubes, and automatic self-dimming lighting controls. Other strategies included a high efficiency heating and cooling unit and the use of a vestibule to reduce heating and cooling losses. An independent consultant has stated that the new building is 54 percent more efficient than the state energy code requirements.

Furthermore, ARC was responsible for evaluating the costs and benefits of the materials used. To minimize the amount of construction waste -- most of which was recycled -- the building module was based on standard building material dimensions. Here are some other key features:

:: A steel stud frame with an air barrier, rigid insulation and vapor barrier blanketing the exterior helps prevent moisture intrusion and thermal bridging, providing a much better protection against any potential mold contamination.

:: As many of the materials as possible were eco-friendly, including formaldehyde-free and low-VOC paints, coatings and sealants; recycled steel; water-based icynene floor insulation; MDF made from recovered wood fiber; bamboo; and recycled-content carpet tiles. Many of these materials are also mold-resistant.

:: The vestibule acts as a thermal and noise buffer, while the walk-off mat keeps moisture and dirt from entering the classroom.

:: White roofing reflects solar heat and reduces cooling loads on the classroom.

This new and highly innovative classroom design strikes a balance between environmental sensitivity, high performance, initial cost and life cycle costs, while still addressing the ultimate flexibility of relocation that is a cornerstone of the temporary classroom application. The team's design incorporates "green" initiatives for LEED NC Certification and not only promotes a positive environmental impact, but also improves indoor air quality and energy efficiency.

"It's time that we all have greater appreciation for the benefits of building "green," not only for the future protection of our environment and resources, but for the well-being and comfort of the students and teachers who occupy the buildings," says Laurie Robert, vice president of NRB, a leading manufacturer of modular buildings since 1979.

Blending and balancing all the elements of sustainability, versatility and aesthetics, the new classroom also includes a "fun factor" for kids. Removable panels over the entrances allow each class to "personalize" their classroom by painting their own mural, giving the teacher and the students "ownership" of their own space. The classroom can also be used as a hands-on teaching tool for students to study "green" principles and learn the significance of their role in the protection of our environment and resources.

There are significant benefits of ARC-designed modular structures. In addition to the example set by The Carroll School, other purposes include multiple classroom units and interim laboratory space. Cliff Cort, president of Triumph Leasing and Triumph SmartSpace adds, "The versatility of the design is such that the size and layout of the unit can be modified for a wide range of practical uses -- from temporary office and healthcare facilities, retail stores, restaurants, storage, and warehouses to permanent multi-story buildings."

Another advantage of the flexible design/build process is that the entire modular building is built off-site in less than two months and takes only a week to install at the site, cutting construction time and reducing site disruption.

Furthermore, there has been a mistaken belief that a "modular building" is just an interim space solution set up on a site until the "real building" comes along. Yes, there are some modular units that are used for short-term purposes. But in many cases, modular construction is simply an alternate method of building - with little compromise to architectural, mechanical or electrical design features. They have to adhere to full code compliance and held to the same or higher design/engineering review and inspection processes and standards, as conventional methods.

"Since the mid '90s, our industry has seen a divergence in building use, design and technology. Just a few years ago, a modular building supplier would have been approached to provide a temporary health care clinic for a year or so while the beautiful new 10,000-square foot, brick-clad, MRI Imaging Medical Clinic was being constructed - complete with barrel vaults, ceramic floors and even a fire place," says Ms. Robert. "Today, at NRB, the technology exists in modular construction to provide permanent buildings with both the architectural aesthetic and build quality to meet, and often structurally exceed, the same conventionally site-built project. Structural steel post-and-beam designs, pre-poured concrete floors and brick exteriors come together to bring clients the absolute best-in-class facilities with the permanence and performance of their site-built counterparts. Faster."

Temporary buildings will always be needed - just think of the critical role they played, and continue to play, in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita as families and businesses needed "instant" housing and commercial space in efforts to put their lives back together. But modular construction has also come into its own as a practical, permanent solution. Sophisticated modular structures can be designed, built, delivered and installed for almost any permanent application - whether it's a 5,000-square-foot office building, or a 50,000-square-foot school addition, or even a 950-square foot classroom for The Carroll School.

View an interactive diagram of the sustainability features incorporated in ARC's design:

About ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge:
Founded in 1969, ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge is one of the nation's leading firms specializing in educational, sports, science, corporate, biotechnology, and R&D facilities. With an emphasis on innovative and sustainable design, the firm has garnered more than 65 awards from a wide range of professional organizations and publications. Major higher education clients of the firm include Boston College, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Tufts, UC Colorado, UIowa, and the University of Massachusetts, as well as corporations such as Abbott Laboratories, Genzyme, and Millipore. ARC also has extensive independent school experience for clients such as Phillips Exeter Academy, Noble & Greenough School, St. Paul's School and Deerfield Academy, among others. For more information, visit:

To learn more about commercial modular construction and its applications, visit Modular Building Institute: The Voice of Commercial Modular ConstructionTM.

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