It's already green-chic to include recycled newsprint and carpet pads in living-room walls. The coolest kitchen cabinets have glued-together chips of recycled wood. And counter tops? -- used carpet, bottle shards, vinyl records and computer parts. Even garden walls can be constructed of slices of earth, resembling a layered chocolate cake.

But really, that is practically old school. New school is -- well -- schools insulated with blue jean denim scraps, if you can get folks to part with their beloved 501s and jackets.
Green schools with blue denim insulation

OK, so denim isn't the only material used in these 21st-century modular schools going up in California; the usual recyclables are included. The classrooms also boast low- and zero-VOC interiors (volatile organic compounds, often found in paint) and smart lighting. The latter harvests natural daylight and uses energy-efficient mechanical and electrical systems, as well as solar panels. Combined, they create grid-neutral classrooms, which produce at least as much electricity as they use.

Right on! And those denim scraps? They're used for wall and roof insulation, helping to minimize heat and cooling loss.

A leader in this green construction is Manteca, California-based American Modular Systems, which manufactures Gen 7 classrooms. The conservation-based construction saves school districts "up to $100,000 per year in direct cost savings and long-term savings of more than 30%," says Tony Sarich, vice president of operations for AMS. And you get them fast -- they can be installed in 90 days.

Are they worth it? Yes, apparently.

"Green schools enjoy 20% higher test scores, fewer absences, lower health-care costs and higher teacher retention," says Sarich. They also are designed acoustically to absorb echo, improving student comprehension.

Perhaps. It has been well established that green building conserves water and energy, and the cost benefits, over time, are indisputable. Maybe the better air quality -- from less-toxic building materials -- does promote better health. Surely, it can't hurt kids.

Green schools were bound to hit the horizon. Although experts haven't tallied the number of green buildings nationwide, the movement is red-hot -- to the extent that city architects from Los Angeles to New York have built green fire and police stations, libraries and community centers. So why not schools?

A decade ago considered as popular as health-care reform was recently, sustainably built structures today are de riguere.

"Clients always ask for energy-conserving products," says Alan Janess, chief executive of Burbank-based The California Design Team. "Green costs more at first, but in the long haul, you save money. Schools and condos probably will all be green in the next few years."

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