Graduate students’ research foundation for local building’s ‘green’ roof

Graduate students research foundation for local buildings green roof

Two environmental studies graduate students are delving into an unknown concept in Texas: bringing plant life up to the rooftop level on a building in Fort Worth.

Jon Kinder, an environmental studies graduate student, decided to pursue “green roofs” as a research project and was joined by fellow classmate David Williams. Kinder and Williams are both in their final terms and have been involved in the project for a year and a half.

Williams said the Botanical Research Institute of Texas has noticed the pair’s research and has looked to them for guidance in building a green roof.

“BRIT has used the data we have gotten throughout the entire study to basically get informed about how they want their roof to form and function,” Williams said. “BRIT wants a native plant community on the roof and nobody has done that here in Fort Worth, so they are turning to us and the research we are doing. “

Cleve Lancaster,director of development for BRIT, said the students have been critical in developing the plan for the roof, which will be 20,000 square feet. He said the building is adjacent to Fort Worth Botanic Gardens and will be the headquarters for BRIT. The building is slotted to open in April 2011, he said.

Tony Burgess, a professor of environmental sciences who oversees the project, said he educated the two students on the different plants and soils that live on the Texas prairie. After he supplied the knowledge, it was up to the students to create an ecosystem that would work best on rooftops in Texas, Burgess said.

He said the BRIT building was the driving force behind the entire project.

The design and planting is in progress now. Williams said he and Kinder have built six modules to mimic the roof of the new BRIT building.

The plants that will be used on the building can be prepared one to two years ahead of time in trays on the ground, Williams said, adding that those trays can be put on top of the roof a week before the opening.

“It is expensive, but the saving is in the energy cost and in the life time of the roof,” Burgess said. “In a hot climate in Texas, soil provides a great insulation to keep buildings cooler.”

The research is funded by Burgess and the environmental studies department; about $6,000 has been spent on the project so far, Burgess said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site on green roofs, other benefits include reducing roof storm water runoff, providing a habitat for birds and insects, absorbing air pollution and protecting underlying roof material.

The two students spent last summer researching and gathering plants and soil at the Fort Worth Nature Center, the largest city-owned nature center in the United States, Williams said.

Williams refers to himself as the “soil and water guy,” while referring to Kinder as the “plant guy.” The students built 15 test modules that were modeled after mini roofs and left them out during the hot summer months to see which ones would last, Williams said.

“Our issue was that nobody had really done green roofs in a really hot climate like we have in Texas,” Williams said.

Williams said he and Kinder would have to use native plants in the area if they were going to successfully build a “green roof” in Fort Worth.

“The Fort Worth prairie is being cut in two by urban development, and there are two very rare plants that grow at the Fort Worth Nature Center that we are trying to preserve,” Burgess said.

Burgess said the rare plants are the Comanche Peak prairie-clover and the summer gay feather. If the students could build a habitat on a roof top, then they could get the rare plants up on there and save them, he said.

The concept of “green roofs” may be new to Texas, but the technology started decades ago in Europe, Burgess said.

He said the “green roof” idea originated in the 1950s and 1960s in Europe when people were tired of the urban setting, adding that the Chicago City Council building was a leading innovator in establishing green roofs in the United States.

“They wanted to green up these cities,” Burgess said.

Currently, the art department is discussing putting a green roof on the top of the Moudy Building, Burgess said.

Williams said they are hoping to find some funding and backing to make the project come to life.