Futuristic design grows out of need for savings


The Department of Education is testing a new portable building design in hopes of giving students and teachers more creative and flexible space while saving money on utility bills.

​​​​In a state with one of the nation's highest energy costs, the Hawaii State Department of Education (DOE) spends roughly $46 million a year in electricity to power 255 schools throughout the state.

The DOE has worked to cut electricity costs in many ways, including through energy generation and natural lighting. One alternative at an Oahu campus takes advantage of building design and technology to achieve savings.

The futuristic-looking classroom building at Ewa Elementary School is a model for future projects. The exterior is capped by a saw-tooth roof loaded with photovoltaic panels that harnesses all of its energy needs, so much so the building generates more power than it uses.

"This building goes beyond net-zero. This building is creating an 'energy positive' situation, which is attractive to helping us lower electricity costs," said Assistant Superintendent of School Facilities Dann Carlson.

The building, which has been in use for three school years, favors natural light and ventilation over artificial lighting and cooling. The Ewa structure was one of several designs the DOE considered for a pilot program to look at new ways to build classrooms.

​"We looked at trying to design a building of the future to be a possible replacement for the well-known portable classrooms that dot our campuses throughout the state," Carlson said. "This building style holds promise."


While the initial investment in such a building is higher, the "life-cycle cost" of the building is lower. Spread over 40 years, the DOE estimates more than $100,000 in energy savings alone. The higher amount of metal is expected to keep the building in good condition compared with wooden portables that require more frequent repairs.

The building is very different from others around the state, and that generated some interest around campus and even got broader attention with a profile in Wired Magazine​.

"Students who have had the good fortune of having classes in the building have been excited about it," Ewa Elementary Principal Stan Tamashiro said. "They like the look and feel of the building."

There are other benefits to the design of the structure, mainly that its larger-than-average size gives teachers more flexibility.

"We can have the students working at their desks and also have a smaller group over on the side discussing a different project," said Jordan Santiago, who teaches in the building. "It gives us options we wouldn't have in a typical portable classroom."

"When we were in a pinch for space because of repairs to another classroom, we were able to temporarily house a second class in here with no issues," Tamashiro added. "There is also a lot of wall space for whiteboards and bulletin boards to display student work and learning materials."

The structure allows students to take advantage of more natural light and ventilation. Large glass windows on the sides of the building and windows at the roof level help let the hotter air out.

The DOE is looking at similar projects that can provide more efficient use of funds in the schools' favor for the long run, and meet the twin goals of better learning environments and greater sustainability.​

"We believe we are headed in a direction that will give us the biggest bang for our buck," Carlson said. "The buildings we deploy must be smarter in technology, design and educational value. That's the future of our schools."

Typical DOE portable classrooms vs. Ewa Elementary structure


Old Portables

New Design

 Electricity Bill



 Learning Space

Limited, often cramped

Bigger, flexible




Repair and Maintenance

Depending on location of campus, repair cycle may start as soon as 3 years, usually for stair areas

This building is only in its 3rd year of use, but because of sturdier materials, expectation is R&M intervention will be far less.


Wooden jalousies

Large glass windows lets in more natural light, windows near ceiling allows for hot air to escape 

Contact Information

Communications and Community Affairs Office

Phone: 808-586-3232

Email: doe_info@hawaiidoe.org


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