By. David Ropa, 7th grade science teacher at Spring Harbor Environmental Magnet Middle School (Madison, Wisconsin)


This Earth Day marks the one year anniversary of the grand opening of the Irwin A. & Robert D. Goodman Greenhouse at Spring Harbor. The greenhouse was built using sustainable construction methods and as much reclaimed, repurposed, or sustainably made materials as possible. The project has become a model for sustainable construction in the Madison area and in its first year, has begun to influence how teachers and students work together in the education world.


The main goal for our middle school’s greenhouse is simply to extend the growing season. When students arrive in the fall, most fruits and vegetables are long-past harvest. When students end a school year, there are few fruits and vegetables available. In Madison – which for garden enthusiasts sits between Zones 5a and 4b – the earliest plants can be set in the ground safely is in early May. Even if students start plants indoors, they will not be able to harvest their plants before the school year ends.


When Spring Harbor Middle School decided to build a greenhouse, the environmental committee began by meeting with students, teachers, and community members about how to best design a structure that would meet a diverse set of needs.


“What we very quickly discovered was that greenhouses can be energy hogs if not designed efficiently,” says Katie Sinkewicz, the school’s art and technology teacher. “I looked at greenhouses in the Madison area and the energy needed to heat in the winter, cool in the summer, and illuminate plants for production were extremely high. We could not, in good conscience, stick the Madison School District with those costs.”


The Irwin A. & Robert D. Goodman Greenhouse at Spring Harbor. (source: Spring Harbor Middle School)


Designing the Greenhouse

Spring Harbor set out to design a building that utilized the principles of permaculture in all phases of construction. They worked with local architect Andy Bramen-Wanek of Ginko House Architects. Andy walked them through hours of discussion, surveying the site and trying to capture a sense of how the building would be used and how the design could be a testament to the vision of the students and teachers. Drawing on the vision set out by Frank Lloyd-Wright ‘s Jacobs II building in Middleton, Wisconsin, Wanek proposed a solar hemicycle design which allows the building to take in sunlight as the Earth rotates and the angle of the sun’s rays change throughout the day. This allows for tremendous passive solar heating as well as illumination for plants, even in winter when the sun tracks lower in the sky. Using solar trackers, students were given a chance to analyze the amount of sun the site receives throughout the year and help identify the best location to construct the building. They discovered the significance of a “south-facing” wall and how the angle of the sun changes throughout the seasons, based on the location of the tilt of the earth’s axis in relation to its orbit around the sun. In the cold winter months, the sun’s rays shine through the entire greenhouse, warming the plants and building. In the summer, when the sun appears higher in the sky, the sun’s rays do not shine as far into the building, keeping the space cooler.


Once it came time to turn vision into reality, the school discovered pioneers in the sustainable building world, Lou Host-Jablonski and Christi Weber of the Design Coalition of Madison. The Design Coalition created the building plans for the greenhouse and, most importantly, guided the school in the sustainable construction methods that would be needed to make the structure energy efficient and sustainable.


Students use reclaimed materials to make art for the gardens. (source: Spring Harbor Middle School)

Constructing the Greenhouse

To break ground, students were given the challenge of learning the surveying techniques needed to plot the foundation’s location. Because of the building’s curvature, students had to employ a great deal of geometry to calculate the length of the building walls. They also had to calculate how much concrete would be needed for the walls and learned how to calculate those costs.


One of many materials the building uses to be resource efficient are Faswall bricks, made from recycled wooden pallets that the students hauled, leveled, and set onto the foundation. Students were then required to calculate how much concrete would be needed to fill the bricks and were taught how to order the materials from the concrete supplier.


Once the foundation was set, students from Madison Area Technical College, as part of their class with construction teacher John Stephany, installed the timber frame structure and roof trusses. The student labor was one of dozens of examples of volunteer labor that the project benefited from.


Under the guidance of the Design Coalition of Madison, on Earth Day 2014, the entire Spring Harbor student body participated in a light straw-clay workshop where students and teachers learned how to manufacture the straw-clay infill used to insulate the building. Using 285 straw bales, students sifted clay, mixed the slurry, coated the bales, and packed the mixture into the walls of the structure. Over 450 volunteers participated over the course of several days to finish packing the walls.


After installing the exterior siding and standing seam aluminum roof, the work moved to the interior of the building where students learned how to apply an earthen plaster finish to the straw clay walls. On Earth Day 2015, the entire school returned to the project to mix and coat the walls. In just two days, the interior was finished and readied for a traditional Japanese lime plaster coating.


Over the course of the following year, students installed the floor, ceiling, and coordinated the installation of the utilities. The greenhouse has a natural gas-fired fireplace, water, electricity, and a small kitchenette. A stainless-steel table, donated oven, cabinets, and microwave allow students to learn the basics of food preparation and preservation. And they get to eat some pretty great foods.


After a total of six years—from the time the first grant money was received to the grand opening—the project was finally completed. The building was officially opened, fittingly, on Earth Day 2016. The entire school and hundreds of neighbors, friends, and volunteers walked through the building to revel in the accomplishments of so many individuals.


“One of the best things about working on the greenhouse,” says Hannah Metzger, now a high school student and former Spring Harbor alum, “was how many memories go along with it. I can remember exactly which portion of the wall I was in when we packed them with straw.”


Javier Serate, a Madison freshman recalls, “the greenhouse taught me about teamwork and how to bring something that was just an idea into a really cool place.”


Students prepare and eat pizza with ingredients from the gardens. (source: Spring Harbor Middle School)

Using the Greenhouse for Education     

The greenhouse building was available for daily use at the start of the 2016-17 school year. Students have actively worked to improve and utilize the space for a variety of activities. They have started planting seedlings to use in the school’s gardens and for a local plant sale, and are creating art projects to use in fundraisers and to recognize the project’s donors. An aquaponics system is being constructed that will use fish nutrients (from fish caught by students in nearby Lake Mendota) to grow a variety of vegetables. Students have also begun designing a wood-fired brick oven that will enable the community to come together and use the space to make pizzas and breads.


Recent donations have created an opportunity for Spring Harbor to raise chickens, so students are researching the rules for raising chickens in Madison and have started planning how to design, build, and maintain living animals on-site. Questions such as “who is going to care for the animals on the weekend and vacations?” and “what will we do with the waste?” have created opportunities for forward planning and potential new commercial ventures whereby students could, one day, sell nutrient-rich soil and soil amendments.


But the use of the greenhouse and gardens is not solely the domain of the science teachers. Language arts teachers use the beautiful surroundings to inspire children to write poetry and haiku. The math class has taught lessons on population densities of different plants in the gardens. The social studies class learns principles of mapping by using the school grounds as a learning tool. The art department uses reclaimed materials to create art for the garden, such as mosaic tiles and stepping stones, fruit and vegetable signs, and brightly painted furniture. The outdoor spaces have become actual classrooms; albeit ones that allow for greater freedom of movement, provide fresh air, and give children a chance to explore their environment.


Built on the principles of project-based learning, the Irwin A. & Robert D. Goodman Greenhouse at Spring Harbor is a testament to what young people can do. By definition, students learn by doing. Though many adults may shudder at the thought of teaching middle school students, the truth is, middle school students have so much energy that if it is pointed in the right direction, amazing things happen. At the Spring Harbor Greenhouse, the proof is out in the gardens.


About the Author

David Ropa is a 7th grade science teacher at Spring Harbor Environmental Magnet Middle School in the Madison Metropolitan school district. He has been teaching for 17 years, after a successful career in food product development and research. In addition to teaching, he leads the school’s Field Biology Club, directs the school’s annual musical, and coordinated the construction of the Irwin A. & Robert D. Goodman Greenhouse at Spring Harbor, a sustainable learning space that opened on Earth Day 2016.