Images courtesy Stantec / Cause and Effect Evolutions
Stantec architect Annette Zacherson designed the project to maximize natural light through clerestory windows.
Images courtesy Stantec / Cause and Effect Evolutions
Shaded light wells and outdoor screens are a major feature of the school design.

An audacious plan is under way to build as many as 24 new schools in key markets across the U.S. solely through corporate funding, donated materials and volunteer labor.

Dubbed the Green Schoolhouse Series, the idea sprung from father-and-son team Marshall and Jeff Zotara, co-founders of Cause and Effect Evolutions, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based firm acting as organizer, project manager and public relations firm representing corporations and construction industry firms that have pledged financial or in-kind support for the school construction, estimated to cost more than $200 million in total.

Contractors broke ground this month on the inaugural $4-million schoolhouse, dubbed Safari, in west Phoenix. The 6,291-sq-ft building is being built for Roadrunner Elementary School, which serves 800 students and is—like the other schools to follow—an existing Title 1, low-income, public school campus. Future projects will range from 6,000 to 15,000 sq ft.

The schools are designed to achieve LEED-Platinum certification. "There are only two LEED-Platinum schools in the entire country, and they are both in wealthy communities," Jeff Zotara says. "We wanted to give something at the highest levels of sustainability to an underserved community."

Two more projects are planned for Phoenix, and then San Diego and Los Angeles are next. Future projects are set for Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans and other major U.S. markets "for a public relations standpoint because we want to get the message out there by reaching the greatest number of people," Zotara says. In addition to promoting sustainability and the importance of public education, he says the message is “to share with the public that corporate America is there to help—corporations are made up of people in the same communities that these schools are.”

To be considered for future schoolhouses, school districts submit a grant application which goes through a tight selection process led by the program’s advisory board, comprised of participating corporations, architects, engineers and contractors. Key factors include school board, teacher and community support plus logistical concerns such as if the campus has enough physical space for the schoolhouse.

The Zotaras have been working to revitalize school campuses since 2001, starting with smaller cosmetic improvements. By around 2006 they began doing sustainability projects such as water and energy conservation and school gardens. During that time, several school districts asked if the Zotaras had the resources to upgrade aging portable classrooms, many of which had been in service long after their typical 10-year life span. "We took a look at it. Once you start to renovate a portable, you might as well just build a new building," Jeff Zotara says.

Without a lot of direct construction experience, Cause and Effect presented, in 2008, its idea to get manufacturers, design firms and contractors aboard. "We were one of the early adopters of the program," says Joanne Davis, vice president, commercial marketing, for building products manufacturer Armstrong World Industries, Lancaster, Pa. "I get a lot of calls from a lot of companies, but when they started talking about 'green' and 'schools,' I felt like their proposition just made so much sense." It also allows the firm to publicize new green products that would be a good fit for schools, Davis adds.

Soon, corporate sponsors such as Kraft Foods, American Express and Cisco joined in. Cause and Effect handles the sponsors’ media, marketing and public relations as it pertains to the green schoolhouses series, which in turn helps fund Cause and Effect’s efforts to manage the projects and convince more firms to join up. Empire Renewable Energy, Mesa, Ariz., offered $250,000 of photovoltaic rooftop panels and Suwanee, Ga.-based Price Industries donated HVAC equipment for Safari. Mitsubishi Electric, Tokyo, will provide $150,000 of HVAC systems for the second Phoenix project, Orangewood School.