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Green Roof Time at Penn State

Thursday, November 17, 2011
Green Roof Tech Rookie Recalls His Time at One of the Best Green Roof Research Programs in the US

Photo courtesy of Centre Daily Times

On a sunny but cold Tuesday morning I stepped into the Tyson Building for the first time.  I was returning to Penn State two years after completing my undergraduate degree.  The basement hallway was warm and inviting but in my palms was a cold sweat.  Re-entering the classroom was like walking into a strange country.  I crossed the threshold and took a seat next to the prettiest girl in class; some old habits never go away.  I relaxed into the typically first day pre-class conversation and waited for Professor Berghage to arrive.  A few minutes later in walked a tall, stalky man with a long grey ponytail wearing blue jeans, a vintage LL Bean shirt and of course a toothy smile.  Horticulture 497A: Green Roofs, Rain Gardens and Living Walls consisted of no more than 15 students, most of who were already familiar with Dr. Berghage and were all apt to calling him simply ‘Rob’.  I realized within minutes that this class, this time in space, was a foreign country from all the other class rooms I ever spent time in at Penn State.  Gone were the slightly awkward, poorly dressed but all too clean-cut professors from my days as an economics student. 


Photo Courtesy of Andrew Cole Yanders

After a period of introduction to green roofs the class moved to a nearby classroom in Headhouse l.  Rob continued to discuss the myriad components that go into a modern green roof and passed examples around for all of us to inspect.  This is a trend in Dr. Berghage’s teaching style I came to greatly appreciate, theoretical explanations then immediate tactile experience.  The following week we began discussions on media and our week’s lab time was spent creating and testing media with varying air-space porosities.   The varying medias the class created were then placed into experimental hanging boxes in the greenhouse and covered with sedum album cuttings.

University Park campus is lush with green roofs with more coming with each new building Graham Spanier is incapable of saying no to.  Stepping onto the roof of the Forestry Building, Penn State’s first green roof, was my first experience with a completed green roof.  It was hard to even call it spring yet, but the roof looked wonderful to me, vibrant and full of life.  We toured more roofs throughout the semester and charted installation progress on others.  Special interest was made to watch the the ground level intensive roof being built on top of the new nano-fabrication laboratories in the Millennium Science Building.               

As a class we spent considerable time evaluating the two major green roof systems on the market in the United States today, the modular system and the built-up system.  We constructed two experimental boxes for each system and fill with an FLL approved media.  The boxes were hung and fitted with lysimeters.  Naturally we determined evapotranspiration rates as well as time to peak flow rates at varying degrees of inclination.

Several weeks of the semester were also dedicated to the study of rain gardens.  Anyone who has spent any time at University Park during heavy rain storms knows to wear their wellies.  The Biggler River comes first to mind.  Suffice it to say Penn State has a problem with storm water.  Decreasing amounts of green space coupled with increasing roof areas are compounding the problems on an already over-stressed infrastructure.  The difficult job of trying to alleviate the problem falls on the shoulders of Lawrence Fennessey, Penn State’s Stormwater Systems Engineer.  Dr. Fennessey took the class on an afternoon long tour of the entire campus, which is mind-blowingly huge, pointing out all of the challenges that need to be met and the ingenious solutions that have been implemented.  Porous pavements, curb cuts, infiltration gardens and bioswales are only a few examples of the techniques Dr. Fennessey and the rest of OPP have used.

When I returned to university for the Spring Semester 2011 I wasn’t one hundred percent certain what wanted to study.  I knew I wanted to do something ‘green,’ to study biological systems.  I talked with department heads of both Agricultural Engineering and Molecular Biology expressing my desire to study algae and biofuels.  They set me up with a defined academic path, which I began to pursue, but time, money and ultimately my desire to remain at university became an issue.  With green roofs I found a perfect outlet for all my aspirations.  Today I could not be happier; I am working with biological systems and also fulfilling my artistic passion for landscape design.
        
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