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Project FROG Becomes a Cinderella Story for Modular Construction

<p>Project FROG&rsquo;s quick-build, energy-neutral classroom of the future came to Greenbuild for its debut and departed the international conference amid announcements that the prototype will be used for a state-of-the-art science complex at a Connecticut school.</p>

Project FROG’s quick-build, energy-neutral classroom of the future came to Greenbuild for its debut and departed the international conference amid announcements this week that the prototype will be used for a state-of-the-art science complex at a Connecticut school.

The 1,280-square-foot classroom was built on site in six days by Project FROG, a two-year-old firm based in San Francisco. The company called the prototype "FROG Zero" because the structure is capable of generating more energy than that required to operate its systems. The company acronym stands for Flexible Response to Ongoing Growth.

Its features include a 75 percent reduction in energy demand, high ceilings and enough windows to produce bright, open-air feeling indoors, peak air quality, fungible user technology, the capacity to customize for microclimates and advanced climate controls.

FROG Zero's makers also say the building produces virtually no carbon emissions, can provide 100 thermal comfort hours and has the capacity to return five times its energy use through solar power generation.

Those features are embodied in the modular building system that involves four basic pieces or shapes that the company calls wings, spines, the front porch and the engine room, which serves as the powerpack for the structures.

The pre-engineered components are like pieces of Legos or an Erector Set. They can be customized and configured as needed. The shapes "go together in lots of different ways and can scale up indefinitely," said Project FROG Founder and CEO Mark Miller.

The components of any one building or complex make up a kit, which is preassembled, packed flat and sent to the building site. The portability enables the company to source and assemble structures within a relatively tight radius of building sites and control waste.

Though it declines to discuss specific costs, the firm estimates its cost of production is 20 to 30 percent less than that of a comparable conventional building.

An architect by training, Miller's inspiration for the company grew out of work four years ago that involved schools and researching portable classrooms. 

He soon learned that about a third of all public classrooms were in portables and that they seldom lived up to their name.

Conceived as temporary and moveable sites that would be used until more traditional buildings could be expanded or constructed, portables generally were never moved at all and remained in use for decades. In his travels around the country, Miller found it was not unusual to see portables in use since the '60s.

"That became my fascination," he said. "the whole issue of classrooms in general. The reason why there were so many portables — rarely being moved, by the way — is that schools needed to solve problems fast. They needed to get classrooms quickly; they needed them fast and they needed them cheap."

For the most part, that's just what schools got, but they didn't get much else. Portables generally did not have much cache with students or faculty. Early models had few windows, were often stuffy and were unattractive in addition to being uncomfortable.

The need for swift, cost-effective building solutions hasn't diminished over the years, and the expectations for the buildings increased. "People needed something of quality, something healthy, something that would improve the performance of students and teachers" Miller said.

Creating a solution became an avocation, and Miller and some colleagues noodled with the thought for awhile.

"What transformed us," he said, "were two disruptions: the tsunami in Indonesia and Katrina. People just weren't prepared and we thought we can solve this problem. That was the birth of FROG."

The guiding premise for the company was to approach its structures like a product and design them based on people's needs. "We determined what is the ideal environment for learning and people, and then we created the kit," he said.

The Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at Infineon Raceway in California.


Therein lies the difference, he contends, between his firm and other modular construction businesses.

"We see ourselves in an entirely different category," Miller said. "The modular part is the engineering technique. But that is just the technique, that is not the result. We feel FROG classrooms are not only very good modular construction, but better than conventional buildings. The reason that they're smart is that they are built around the human experience."

The firm's completed projects include the Child Development Center at the City College of San Francisco, a 10,000-square-foot campus within a campus that was constructed around 7,000 square feet of open space.

Project FROG also built the 14,000-square-foot learning center at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School in Sonoma, California.

The firm's goal is to further commercialize its business — an objective that aligned nicely with the opportunity to be the showpiece exhibit at Greenbuild this year. Thousands of attendees — the company is still counting up exactly how many — toured the classroom that sat just outside the ground floor entrance to the exhibit hall.

On display inside was a list future projects. FROG's prospective three-building complex in Connecticut at the Watkinson School in Hartford, where the model from Greenbuild is to be incorporated into the design, was formally announced Monday. The project involves creating a state-of-the-art science learning center at the school.

Such developments are the reason why Miller likes to tell the backstory about his company's name.

"Frogs are green," he said. "They only jump forward and — one of my favorites — each frog is a prince with the message, 'Do not be afraid of what's not familiar.' Because if you embrace it, it is a prince."

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