ENR Art Dept
Image: Stantec
Marshall G. Zotara assembled a team of construction industry giants to build sustainable schools using only donated time and materials.


Inspired by the one-room schoolhouses of a bygone era, Marshall G. Zotara is bringing an array of construction industry giants together to perform old-fashioned barn raisings for low-income, Title 1 school districts around the country.

While helping to perform charitable cosmetic makeovers to public schools and community centers for more than a decade, Zotara says he was approached by many of the same schools to find a way to update outdated portable buildings or add much-needed classroom space. Four years ago, Zotara began to leverage his experience as a PR guru to bring together donated materials and labor to build sustainable buildings for public schools.

Working alongside his son Jeff, Zotara named the project the Green Schoolhouse Series and used their PR firm, Cause & Effect Evolutions, Carlsbad, Calif., to organize the project and handle public relations for the firms donating money, materials or other resources. Their efforts culminated at the end of 2011 with the first school's groundbreaking: a 6,291-sq-ft classroom and community-center building for the Roadrunner Elementary School in west Phoenix. Two more schoolhouses in Phoenix are planned to break ground in 2012, then another six projects per year will break ground throughout the rest of the country in cities such as San Diego, Seattle and Chicago. Each will be highly sustainable, targeting LEED Platinum.

"Despite one of the worst economic times in the history of our country, we were able to find some willing partners to make a difference and make a statement to do something good for the community," Zotara says. The Phoenix offices of Hensel Phelps Construction Co. and Stantec are volunteering as general contractor and architect, respectively, on the first job. "It's the world's first sustainable LEED Platinum school built entirely by volunteers, so they really want to be a part of it," he adds.

After being approached by Zotara to design the San Diego project, John Dale, an architect with Los Angeles firm Harley Ellis Devereaux, says, "I have to admit that we probably started with a healthy skepticism about it. Why would we get involved in some crazy idea where its all pro bono and there going to be a barn raising?" But Dale says his firm realized the project could "boost our presence in this community and demonstrate our leadership qualities."

Once suppliers find out the Green Schoolhouse Series is a media-centric operation, they often give products to promote their most progressive and innovative lines, Zotara says. "We aren't just looking for parts. We are looking for partners," he says. Firms provide not only components but also mentoring and training to school staff and students. "We've turned down some partners because we felt they weren't getting really engaged—they just wanted to give us a part—and that's not the way it works," Zotara says.