- By Scott Berman
- November 1st, 2011
Some school districts transforming their open spaces have
looked up — to their roofs. There’s been plenty of activity up there, with
districts transforming what can be a functional afterthought into a new asset
in order to advance strategic goals. There are solar arrays and other green
energy, green roofs and new educational and recreational spaces, all presenting
myriad options and variables.
Districts looking up consider what is architecturally
achievable, permissible policy-wise and fiscally and educationally sound.
First Things First
Districts considering new options for new or existing roof
spaces need to proceed with due diligence. Construction projects offer the
opportunity to create a custom roof space, with renovation or expansion
projects presenting differing criteria. As Joan P. Crowe, the National Roofing
Contractors Association’s (NRCA) director of technical services, says, “A
structural engineer should be retained to evaluate an existing building and
perform an analysis of the proposed modification to determine what needs to be
done to the structure. There are no general guidelines or rules to follow
because it will be on a case-by-case basis. It is especially important to
consult with a licensed professional, since it involves life safety.”
Thus, life safety considerations are one constant, but with
so many variables to consider, what have some K-12 schools done to transform
the open spaces on their roofs?
Some districts have been attracted to wind turbines. Others
are going the way of solar arrays, and en route are encountering the grant and
regulatory processes and possibilities, other funding mechanisms and local
budgetary realities. Arrangements and proposals to install roof solar panels
include, among many others, leasing roof space to utility companies for the
green energy systems; to paying only for the energy produced, not the
equipment; to placing arrays on the roof of a district operations and
maintenance building instead of a school.
The 9,000-square-foot green roof at T.C. Williams High
School in Alexandria, Va., accomplishes several goals simultaneously, according
to Moseley Architects, which designed it. The space is an outdoor classroom
that conserves energy and absorbs stormwater runoff, according to the firm. The
biggest challenge: Placing the roof over the student commons, which needed
plenty of light, so the architects placed the green space in a manner that
enabled daylighting — through clerestory windows and skylights — to enter the
commons below, says Bryna Dunn, Moseley’s vice president and director of
Environmental Planning & Research.
Dunn makes another key point: green roofs that are
educational must be accessible, which means that they must be very safe. Walls
and edge barriers are part of the equation, as are multiple egress options, she
says. Then there’s cost. Dunn explains that school administrators should note
that green roofs cost more than traditional roofs, and require “different, more
frequent” maintenance than traditional roofs.
Dunn adds that she is noticing at least two trends:
preparing sections of roofs as green “demonstration pieces” while considering
larger applications in the future and “using green roofs to engage students in
active learning” in various subjects.
In another tack, schools can create new opportunities by
transforming roof spaces as part of broader construction projects. For
instance, the green roof atop the Calhoun School in New York City was one part
of a major expansion completed in 2004. The 2,500-square-foot roof space,
designed by FXFowle Architects, has turned out to be a “win-win situation” for
the private institution, says Beth Krieger, Calhoun’s director of communications.
Krieger recently showed the space to School Planning & Management as plants
bloomed and pollinators worked above Manhattan.
It’s all about versatility, Krieger explains. The roof
garden grows vegetables and herbs used to “energize” the school lunch program.
That’s just the start: the roof “provides insulation to reduce heating and
cooling needs,” according to Calhoun’s website. The growing program is
augmented by a green house recently installed on the roof of a setback at a
lower level on the opposite side of the building. Additionally, there are light
recreation programs, art installations, student poetry and receptions, Krieger
says. In another aspect not to be ignored, “Our parents love it,” she adds.
A green roof isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. Krieger
recommends that educators contemplating one should ask and answer some
questions first, including: “Are you going to have an ongoing budget for
plantings?” If there is to be an expansive lawn on the roof, “what about a lawn
mower?” And who will cut the grass? Other considerations: what kind of watering
system, and what will be the program for perennials and annuals? Map out
maintenance arrangements and assignments — will it be a maintenance staff
person with a green thumb or volunteers? “It takes a community to keep it
going,” Krieger says.
In another aspect, Calhoun’s roof, which hosts educational
tours by New York metropolitan area students, exemplifies the school’s
interests in community outreach and activism, Krieger adds.
Along this line, districts have transformed their open roof
spaces while being mindful of the need to share information with the community
about what’s happening up there.
For example, the East Haven (Connecticut) Public Schools
shares information online about photovoltaic solar panels atop the roofs of
three district elementary schools and a middle school, charting solar
production, power use, energy yield, the amount in pounds of CO2 avoided and
energy reimbursement in dollars.
Other schools have used their roofs to connect to the
For many years, of course, urban school districts have used
roof spaces for recreation areas, such as playgrounds and basketball courts. To
take one refreshing example, Boston’s Joshua Quincy School has turned its roof
space and another space just above street level into a two-tier educational and
community asset, and has done so by involving the community.
According to the school, transforming the open space on the
roof in November 1999 — it was part of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative project
— became an opportunity for a collaborative effort. Administrators, teachers
and parents, as well as City Year Corps volunteers, members of Harvard
University’s rowing team and neighborhood residents came together to assemble
play equipment still in use there, explains Assistant Principal Ping-Kam Chan.
Today, the well-used roof space, next to a rooftop garden,
“is a great outdoor classroom facility connecting physical and recreational
activities together with educational purposes,” Chan says.
Transforming that roof was a follow-up to a 1998 effort,
when community activists also rolled up their sleeves and worked on the
rooftop’s popular companion piece below: a play area open to the public on a
raised space just above street level. The two urban recreation spaces work
together to benefit educational purposes and the community, helping to keep the
school and the neighborhood connected, Chan adds.
Likewise, community outreach is combined with student
activities atop New Design High School in Manhattan. The 425-student public
school, one of five schools housed in the old Seward Park High School building
on the Lower East Side, transformed its roof several years ago into a varied,
active and even coveted space for students and nearby residents as well. That
space, an enormous one covering virtually an entire city block, had been used
as a recreation area until the 1970s, when it was closed due to maintenance
problems, explains Sarah Baltazar, chief operations officer for New Design.
This is not a meticulous, traditional school space. Baltazar
led School Planning & Management on a tour of what instead is a scrappy
urban rooftop adorned with professional and art student graffiti — more about
that later. One can immediately sense how the space appeals to New Design’s
urban student body. “This is the place to be,” she says, which can be a
double-edged sword: students frequently pine to go there in fair weather.
The space is used for recreation, school dances and other
activities, and equipping it has presented opportunities to forge partnerships
with outside nonprofit groups. The non-profit Center for Architecture
Foundation, for example, got involved with teachers and students to design and
construct a rooftop concession stand and a greenhouse; while a New York
activist group, the Open Road Foundation, has lent a hand with the roof’s skate
park, Baltazar reports.
The roof is also booked for community use for free through
New Design, as per New York City Department of Education rules. Allowable uses
include music events, some open skate hours, which are open to nearby residents
who present IDs; an international graffiti art show called Rooftop Legends; and
an annual independent film festival called Rooftop Films. Teachers and staff
are on hand, and students interested in each occasion volunteer to help, with
concession sales for example, and interact with organizers and professionals in
various fields. Baltazar says the volume of activity up on the roof, primarily
in the spring, can make for some long workdays as the semester winds up. “It’s
worth it,” however, because “the experience for the kids is amazing,” she adds.
Sure, there are challenges, but going green, providing new
educational opportunities, reaching out to the community and providing some
rewarding experiences for students: That’s what some districts have achieved by
Scott Berman is a Denmark-based freelance writer with
experience in educational topics.