It is a rainy November afternoon in Seattle when I go to visit the Perkins School, but that hardly seems to bother the kids running and splashing on the playground. It’s also the perfect weather for Zoë Dash to show me the rainwater collection system in the school’s SEED Classroom, where she teaches science and technology. On a day like today, rainwater runs off the building’s sloped roof and down a gutter into an outdoor cistern; once the water is pumped into the classroom and filtered three times, it can be used for everything from conducting science experiments to washing dirty hands.
“You hear the pump trigger on as soon as you open the faucet, and [you] think about where your water is coming from,” Dash said. “And then you can follow the pipe from the drain all the way outside to the rain garden.”
Nearly every part of the SEED Classroom (the acronym stands for Sustainable Education Every Day) offers an opportunity for Dash’s students to learn about sustainability. The walls are made of salvaged or Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and they use biodegradable, plant-based Styrofoam for insulation. The pipes, electrical wiring and air filtration system are all exposed, allowing curious students to speculate about how they work. And then there’s the kids’ favorite part of the classroom, the waterless composting toilet—or as some of them call it, the “magic toilet”—which turns waste into soil for the garden behind the classroom.
It’s features like these that led to the SEED Classroom becoming one of fewer than two dozen buildings in the world to pass the International Living Future Institute’s “Living Building Challenge”, meeting standards that pertain to water and energy needs, construction materials, and more. The classroom is one of three certified Living Buildings in Seattle, and the first portable building anywhere to receive the status.
Dash has been teaching at Perkins since the fall of 2013. Earlier that year, the school made plans to expand the first grade classroom, which would require moving the adjacent science classroom into a portable. Dissatisfied with traditional portable buildings—“when I think about portables for the schools I went to […] they just weren’t pleasant spaces to learn,” Dash said—Perkins looked into alternative options.
One of those options stood out immediately. Assistant Head of School Shana Reiss de Reyes was researching potential solutions—“everything from yurts to sheds to tiny homes,” she said—when she heard about an eco-friendly portable classroom. Reiss de Reyes got in touch with the classroom’s architect, and was invited along with Head of School Barry Wright to see the prototype for the SEED Classroom at ILFI’s Living Future unConference in Seattle in May 2013. After further research, Perkins decided on the SEED Classroom, with Wright calling it “the clear choice for us.”
“Perkins was really interested in how that building could underscore our science and sustainability focus,” Wright said. “We wanted to have this building as the first in the world.”
Perkins’ board of trustees approved the SEED Classroom’s purchase in August, just three months after Wright and Reiss de Reyes first saw it. The school organized a parent fundraiser in October, and the following summer, the building was installed on the school grounds.
To be certified as a Living Building by the ILFI, a structure must satisfy the imperatives outlined in seven performance areas: place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity and beauty. It must be self-sufficient, harvesting its own water and energy needs; it must also be constructed with materials that have no adverse effect on the environment or the building’s inhabitants. On top of that, it must be an aesthetically pleasing space that promotes well-being and an appreciation for social justice.
Perkins’ SEED Classroom met the requirements for place and materials from the get-go (the classroom occupies space that used to be part of the parking lot), but other performance areas took time to fulfill. Some of them required the school to make modifications to the classroom; though the building already had a rooftop rainwater collection system in place, Perkins upgraded it by installing the outdoor cistern—an addition that took time to properly integrate. (Per code restrictions, the bathroom sink is hooked up to the city water supply.) Three years after it was purchased, Perkins’ SEED Classroom was certified as a Living Building.
“That was really exciting as well for us to be able to showcase with the kids,” Dash said. “People like to be first in line, but often they don’t want to be the first to try something out because there’s a lot of hiccups along the way.”
Having the first portable Living Building in the world is a point of pride, for sure, but Dash is acutely aware that not every school is as fortunate as Perkins—a private school with just over one hundred students—to be able to afford a SEED Classroom (or something like it), or even include sustainability in its educational curriculum alongside subjects like math and science. When asked how other schools could implement sustainable elements of their own, she acknowledged that Perkins’ resources enabled it not only to pursue the SEED Classroom, but to deal with whatever problems arose along the way. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the school took on the endeavor to begin with.
“We wanted to kind of blaze the way so that those problems could be fixed to make it cheaper down the line for schools that might not have those resources available,” Dash said. “We want this to be an accessible teaching and educational space for every type of school and every student.”
Brent Young, LSW Architects’ associate principal, said that public schools are funded in such a way that makes it difficult for them to be built with sustainability in mind. Since school bonds only pay for the initial cost of building a new school, environmentally friendly features such as solar panels or rainwater collection systems—which cost more up front but can save money in the long run—are often rejected in favor of something that’s more immediately necessary, like an additional classroom.
“To get the most school for the dollar, it can compromise sustainability,” Young said. “But over the life of a school, the operational and maintenance costs can be much higher than the initial costs.”
The sky has gone dark over Seattle, and the afternoon drizzle is threatening to become an evening downpour. Dash steps out into the rain for a moment and returns with a few students, soaked from playing in the rain. (Kindergarteners and first graders are required to have a change of clothes at school, Dash says; for everyone else, it’s “strongly encouraged.”) We sit around a table and one by one, the kids tell me about their favorite parts of the SEED Classroom.
“We have a water cistern out there, and with the water in it […] you can also fill buckets up with rainwater,” says a student named Avi. “There’s a thing where kids play with water, and they have a lot of fun filtering it.”
Sanna, the next student to speak, mentions her love of the composting toilet, to which her classmates all chuckle in agreement. Another one, Madison, directs my attention to the SEED Classroom’s carpet—composed of many colorful, eco-friendly panels—and tells me that it’s supposed to be a picture, and that it was designed by Dash’s students a few years ago.
“There’s a rainbow and a waterfall and a bunch of different stuff—and [the carpet] is also natural,” Madison said.
In the SEED Classroom, students aren’t just taught about sustainability: they’re encouraged to look for it in the world around them and envision a greener, more sustainable future—one where composting toilets and eco-friendly carpets are the norm rather than the exception. In one of Dash’s teaching units, fourth and fifth graders are challenged to reimagine what a building of their choice in the surrounding Maple Leaf neighborhood would look like as a Living Building.
“Students are asked in so many ways, ‘How can you make something more efficient, smarter, cheaper?’” Wright said. “‘What can we do in the here and now to make things greener?’”
Dash’s students got the chance to do that for real when Perkins underwent another expansion. Among other additions, the school built three new classrooms onto the main building, and Dash’s students helped design them, suggesting ideas for sustainable features to be implemented in the rooms.
“They drew architectural plans for the new wing of the building and presented those to our administration […] and they had to make a case in their presentation for why they thought it was important,” Dash said.
One of the ideas the kids came up with was to equip one classroom with a solar panel, which powers the lights; another uses a roof-mounted mirror and skylight to illuminate the room with natural light. (Both rooms can use traditional electric lights when solar energy or natural light runs low.) The third classroom, called the Green Room, feels almost like a greenhouse with its floor-to-ceiling windows and hydroponic gardening system, which—like the SEED Classroom—uses filtered rainwater from an outdoor cistern.
Dash’s pride in her students as she tells me this is obvious. Still, it surprises me somewhat to hear that she is optimistic for what their future holds. The world that Dash’s students stand to inherit is being reshaped by climate change before their very eyes, and it is them, rather than the people responsible, who will be tasked with saving it. Even if her students don’t understand that yet, Dash says, she is sure that they understand the importance of what they are learning in the SEED Classroom—perhaps even more than most adults.
“Kids are able to dream. Kids are able to care about things. Kids are endlessly creative, and we need that creativity to come up with some more solutions [for] the problems of the world,” Dash said. “It’s scary, how big some of the problems are, but it’s not hopeless.”
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