ShareThis Page

Phipps' SEED Classroom aims to add to kids' curiosity

| Friday, June 5, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Richard Piacentini, executive director for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, in front of the Phipps’ new SEED Classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens new SEED classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Richard Piacentini, executive director for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, gives a tour of the Phipps’ new SEED Classroom in Oakland on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. The classroom includes a living wall of plants that are watered using collected rainwater.

At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, learning has never been greener.

Last month, the conservatory unveiled the nation's second-ever net-zero energy, fully sustainable, modular classroom.

The SEED (Sustainable Education Every Day) Classroom is designed to be an entirely self-sustained classroom that provides space where kids can receive hands-on learning opportunities, SEED cofounder Stacy Smedley says.

The classroom checks seemingly every box for environmental conservation — toxin-free; uses natural lighting; collects and filters hundreds of gallons of rainwater for its sink and composting toilets; aerates using the energy-efficient “Energy Recovery Ventilator” system; and produces and tracks energy using solar panels (almost 1,300 kilowatts produced in its first month).

The classroom is so “green” that its walls — referred to as “living walls” — allow students to plant and grow year-round vegetation in them.

“Kids have said that they want to live there,” Smedley says. “They feel like they're outside when they're inside.”

The classroom at Phipps will host science-education programs for thousands of children annually, as well as other educational and professional endeavors throughout the year.

The classroom, which is open for the public to tour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, is intended to illustrate to the important connection between people and plants, as well as how human health and environmental health are interconnected, says Richard Piacentini, Phipps executive director.

Many features of the classroom are designed to spark children's curiosity and provide hands-on education about energy conservation.

Children are able to, for example, turn the heat down for one day and see how many quantifiable kilowatts of energy production that saves, Smedley says.

“It's turning learning inside-out by allowing kids to do rather than opening a text book and reading,” she says.

The classroom's visible electrical wiring allows students to trace where their electrical energy is coming from, Smedley says. “Kids grow up in an environment that covers everything up,” she says. “Kids learn by seeing and asking questions.”

Due to a growing need for classroom space nationally, approximately one in three U.S. schools use modular units, according to the conservatory. However, many pose inherent problems, such as inadequate lighting and ventilation or are commonly cited for health risks, such as excess mold and high levels of toxins.

The SEED classroom avoids and mitigates many of problems faced by other modular homes by maximizing daylight and fresh air, among other measures, Smedley says.

“A lot of portable units are only designed to last 10 to 15 years,” Piacentini says. “This is designed to be here forever.”

Last month, in order to validate itself as self-sustaining, the classroom began a 12-month criteria test to prove it is “zero-energy,” he says.

The classroom at Phipps is only the second is be unveiled nationally, the first was constructed in May 2014 at Perkins Elementary School in Seattle.

“It's become way less about building and more about what the building can teach,” says Smedley, an architect from Seattle. “That's been pretty cool.”

Matthew Zabierek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7948.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.