As Eco Schoolhouse wraps up, hopes for broader change abound

Sunday, August 17, 2008 | 6:56 p.m. CDT
Ken Leija films architect Nicholas Peckham and contractor Scott Powell outside of the Eco Schoolhouse. Leija and others are making a documentary about the building of the schoolhouse. According to Powell, all of the labor and much of the building supplies have been donated. "It's a $250,000 building on a $30,000 budget. That doesn't happen everyday," he said.

COLUMBIA - Motorists along Broadway may have noticed a bit of history going up alongside Grant Elementary School. Next to trailer classrooms, what appears to be an old-fashioned schoolhouse has been rising over the summer. Though the schoolhouse is reminiscent of the past, it is anything but outdated.

This quaint one-room schoolhouse is home to cutting edge technology in an environmentally friendly building. Dubbed the Eco Schoolhouse, it is a self-sustaining classroom that is energy-efficient and less harmful to the environment. More than that, those involved with the project see it as a symbol of change and inspiration for the Columbia community.


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For Paula Elias, change is what she hopes to inspire through a documentary she and filmmakers Ken Leija and Avery and Lenore Danziger are creating.

The documentary, titled "Eco Schoolhouse" for now, began when Elias and Leija were asked to attend early planning meetings and to help promote the project as part of their ad agency, "Axiom - An Identity Company." They met Avery Danziger, who had been invited to the meeting by architect Nick Peckham, the ideas man behind the schoolhouse. Peckham had seen Danziger's award-winning documentary "Edward James: Builder of Dreams" and hoped Danziger would be interested in making a documentary about the schoolhouse, Danziger said.

Additionally, Peckham had hoped such a film would be shown at the U.S. Green Building Council meeting held in Boston this coming November, Danziger said.

The Danzigers and Axiom were both inspired by the project and wanted to help; and, because making a documentary would be a large project, they decided to co-produce the hour-long film.

"Producing and finishing a feature-length film in so short of a time period and with no immediate funding is a daunting task to say the least," Danziger said.

They hope to provide a film that will also work as a blueprint for other schools to create a similar eco-friendly classroom. Additionally, they hope to encourage the community to transition to more green lifestyles as well as provide an educational tool for students.

Building a Solution

The plan for the Eco Schoolhouse began when Peckham of Peckham and Wright Architects wanted to do something for the community to celebrate 30 years of business in Columbia. He also wanted to do something that would benefit children.

As they were discussing project ideas, Peckham heard of the trailer fire at Grant, where his granddaughter attended school. The school's need was a good fit for Peckham's desire for a community project.

The small amount of money the district received for the destroyed trailer didn't begin to cover the costs of building a self-sustaining classroom in its place. So Peckham began to recruit volunteers to donate nearly everything, including labor and building materials. Most volunteers were willing, if not exactly eager, to help.

"Everybody took a deep breath, or two or three deep breaths, maybe studied their shoestrings before saying yes," Peckham said.

He said about 90 percent of the schoolhouse's labor and materials have been donated.

"(This is) a $250,000 building on a $30,000 budget," said Scott Powell of Alpine Builders, the project's general contractor. "That doesn't happen every day."

As of now, the filmmakers have about 50 to 60 hours of footage. Throughout the summer, they have stopped by the construction site about two to three times a day to film, in addition to documenting meetings, announcements and other aspects of the process.

The team also hopes to include a sort of how-to in the film in the form of bonus features. The way, they ­- and most others involved in the project - see it, the Eco Schoolhouse is not just a classroom for Grant; it is for the community in hopes that it will teach about the importance of self-sustainability.

"This project is going to do more to teach people about green (technology) than any amount of advertising," Powell said.

As Peckham had hoped, the film will be completed by this November, when it will premiere at a meeting of the U.S. Green Building Council.

In addition to the premiere, Elias said there will "definitely" be a showing for the Columbia community. She said she also hopes to show it at the True/False Film Festival, which Axiom has been involved with for the past few years. Last year, they produced the promotional videos for the event.

Change for the future

For the filmmakers, the impact of working on the documentary has instilled a thirst for change in them.

Little by little, Leija and Elias are replacing the windows in their home with ones that are environmentally friendly. The windows, which work to better insulate the house and reduce energy costs, are helping the two reduce their carbon footprint.

The Danzigers have had their home used as a "test site" for Columbia's new "Energy Audit" program. The program provides a free evaluation of homes and businesses by reviewing habits, equipment and structures so that citizens are able to make informed decisions about how to best improve conservation efforts. The couple also will be applying for a low-interest loan from the city based on the audit's extensive recommendations to improve their aging house's energy conservation, Danziger said.

Change has extended to how Beverly Borduin, principal of Grant Elementary, thinks about operating her school. One of her first transitions toward the greening of Grant is eliminating the use in the cafeteria of Styrofoam trays, which she is working to replace with a more biodegradable and environmentally gentle substitute.

Also, Grant is working to increase recycling, adding plastic and glass to paper, which is already recycled.

Borduin is talking with teachers about other ways to become a more eco-friendly school - for example, how they can use less paper. Once school starts, the students of Grant will be included in the green conversations.

"The kids will be helping us think of how to reduce utilities (usage)," Borduin said. "They have to be a part of it."

For the students of Grant, the Eco Schoolhouse will be both a place in which they will learn and one that will teach. Most every component of the classroom has some sort of eco-friendly aspect that students can learn about.

"(There is a) beautiful energy about it," Borduin said. "That's the energy I feel when I go in it. (It's) going to be a learning opportunity."

Elias thinks that schools such as these are imperative changes for the youth of America. She thinks that if students grow up in a green environment, they will be able to better come up with a solution to the nation's growing energy crisis.

How the classroom is green

The walls and the ceiling, donated by Thermocore of Missouri, maintain the temperature of the classroom so well that there is little need for outside energy to heat and cool the structure. Recent energy estimates put the yearly cost to heat and cool the schoolhouse between a third and a fourth of the cost of heating and cooling a trailer, Danziger said.

These panels have a high R-value - a figure that measures heat resistance in insulation - estimated to be three times as energy-efficient as the neighboring trailers, said Mikey Mantle, office manager for Thermocore. The higher the R-value, the more energy-efficient something is. The Eco Schoolhouse's R-value is 28, whereas a trailer might have an R-value of nine.

Also, the building is engineered to eliminate drafts and air leakage, further helping its efficiency.

Additionally, the building is situated in such a way that sunlight can be transformed into energy to operate the classroom, due to solar panels. On the same side of the schoolhouse, there are fewer windows so that in warmer weather the room won't heat up as much, thus reducing the need for excessive air conditioning.

The floor of the schoolhouse showcases another green accomplishment. Originally, it was planned to be made out of bamboo, since bamboo quickly replenishes itself - growing up to three to four feet a day, making it the fastest growing woody plant. Now, the floor is corn-based and biodegradable, a nice nod to rural Missouri, said Elias.

The switch was made to a corn-based floor because it is more durable than bamboo. Also, the bamboo floors would have come from China, something that does not earn the building points toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

The corn-based flooring is similar to the vinyl-composition flooring that is often used, said Steve Schaefer of Dave Griggs' Flooring America, who was helping install the floor last week. The adhesive he's used to install the floor is also eco-friendly in that it is low on harmful odors generally found in traditional adhesive.

"It's fun to watch people able to be really flexible," Elias said. "It's not so competitive. Instead, it's really collaborative."

The building crew, which has been working for free all summer, is working double time to have the schoolhouse ready for students when school starts on Thursday, said Scott Powell, the project's general contractor.

"We are committed to getting Jennifer (Hartz, second-grade teacher) in here and the kids in this building one way or another," he said.

One element yet to be installed is the solar panels that will generate the energy needed to run the classroom.

Borduin said the community should be proud of the schoolhouse and the forward thinking it represents.

"It shows we are thinking of the future and of our children," she said.

Contrasting solutions

The starkest contrast the Eco Schoolhouse provides can be seen in its location. Standing beside the main building of 98-year-old Grant Elementary School, the classroom in all its eco-friendly glory is set among its eco-unfriendly counterparts: trailer classrooms.

"We all know (it's) not the best place to put our kids," Elias said. But, largely due to budget constraints, sometimes trailers are the only solution.

Additionally, unlike buildings, trailers depreciate with age. The moment a trailer is driven off the lot, it begins to decrease in value, Danziger said. "We're throwing trailers away after 20 years and losing out," he said.

Proof of the depreciation on Grant's trailers is evident in the amount of insurance money the district received after the trailer the Eco Schoolhouse is replacing burned down in December of last year. The trailer cost roughly $82,000, of which insurance paid $30,000, Borduin said. The trailer was more than 20 years old.

The Eco Schoolhouse will apply for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification in the fall, after the landscaping - which has to be done with plants that are native to Missouri - is completed, Peckham said.

The various teams involved in the Eco Schoolhouse project seem motivated to continuing to make Columbia green.

"I'm committed to keeping this going," Powell said. "(It's) the right thing to do, first and foremost." He added that the classroom is a way for the community to see how it can be done.

"It's a great way to bring awareness to the community," he said. "It's challenging and taxing, but overall I'm very thankful to be a part of this project. My hope is that we jump-start (similar projects) in mid-Missouri."


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