If FEMA didn't drum up enough of a bad reputation with its immediate response to Hurricane Katrina, the nails certainly went into the coffin as word spread of the abominable conditions inside the government-issue trailers that became housing, office, and school facilities after the disaster. Perhaps the only thin silver lining was the extent to which these missteps raised public awareness about indoor air quality and toxic materials—not just in trailers but throughout the built environment.
The trailer troubles were just one contributing factor to the accelerated popular understanding and demand for greener design in the last few years. Human health concerns combined with climate change and spiking energy costs form a perfect storm that has spun out many enterprising ideas for building better. One of these is Project FROG, a San Francisco-based company founded in 2006 with the goal of "defining something that is not traditional construction," company president Adam Tibbs explained to me, "We're trying to bring the construction industry into the 21st century."
What does it mean to be a 21st century construction company? Most importantly, it means maximizing technological capabilities from the design phase all the way through the occupancy and operations of the building. Project FROG designs and manufactures buildings for commercial and educational use that are healthier, more sustainable, more affordable, and quicker to deploy than traditional building systems for corporate campuses or schools.
"We use SolidWorks software—the kind used to design iPhones and Boeing 777s and yachts and cars," says Tibbs. The program enables them to systematize the design such that it's easy to scale and to redefine parameters according to site conditions and end-user needs. "It enables us to understand exactly what the environmental performance is going to be based on the orientation, how many windows we have, and to look at the thermal performance of different types of ventilation, insulation, and so on. We can plug and play these variables to get to an optimized solution for a given climate, orientation, and location."
Tibbs emphasizes that they don't characterize their system as prefabricated or modular, though it is a manufactured structure. He points out that in the residential sector, those two words have acquired connotations of sexiness and good design, but in commercial construction, they remain sticky. Modular buildings are also designed around shipping dimensions, which Tibbs considers a limiting factor in anticipating "human needs and human performance requirements." We like higher ceilings and more varied and spacious dimensions than what a truck can accommodate as a module, he says. "Think Ikea, think flat-pack," he says, "Everything we do is in two-dimensions and gets shipped to the site then assembled."
Project FROG enlisted the help of environmental design firm Loisos + Ubbelohde (the same people behind the ultra-green Gap headquarters, the 5th Avenue Apple store in New York, and the New York Times Building's high performance facades) to create this smart system. As Tibbs explained it, one of the most fundamental ways to reduce energy loads is with natural daylighting, which ought to be incredibly simple, but requires the precision of computer modeling. "By modeling out building performance just on the basis of light we can increase efficiency dramatically," he says, adding that in a classroom setting, "there is an increase in test scores of almost 22 percent in a naturally lit environment. That's a difference between a C and an A."
Their classroom model, FROG Zero (pictured at the top of this article and interior above), is where the company has been firing all their green cylinders. Project FROG's founder and CEO, Mark Miller, a LEED-certified architect, conducted several years of research into healthy learning environments for children before debuting the design at Greenbuild in Boston. The energy neutral building system is designed as a model for educational facilities of the future. It produces zero-emissions and in many locations will generate surplus energy beyond 100% of its own demands through roof-mountain photovoltaic panels.
The first FROG Zero building will be deployed at Watkinson, a private school in Hartford, Connecticut, with more in the pipeline for California, Hawai'i, and elsewhere. With kids as the first clients, they're guaranteed honest feedback, and because of the technology involved in making the buildings, it'll be easy to implement changes as the system is constructed in more places. For now, the concept is a great example of a whole-systems, modern approach to sustainability, taking into account both human and environmental welfare, and using high-tech tools to develop solutions.
All images courtesy of Project FROG. The wood-sided building is FROG Zero and the red and yellow buildings are two other campuses built by FROG before the debut of their energy-neutral model.