UH Raises the Roof on Green Building

UH Raises the Roof on Green Building

UH Raises the Roof on Green Building

First Sloped Green Roof in Houston Tops Keeland Center

by Donna Mosher, 2011

Here’s a surprise for you: The University of Houston is one of just three universities in Texas deemed “green” by The Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges, which lists learning institutions that have demonstrated “an exemplary commitment to sustainability.” www.princetonreview.com/green-guide.aspx

One notable initiative that garnered UH this recognition is the Burdette Keeland Jr. Design Exploration Center. The building was first used on a military base near Galveston in World War II and then was moved to the campus in 1947 where it was used as an auto-body shop, a print shop, and a band annex. Slated for demolition in the late 1990s, new life was infused into it when the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture “up-cycled” the metal building into an award-winning design facility.

Renovating an existing structure rather than tearing it down is a hallmark of sustainable building practices. In this case, the project saved nearly a million dollars for the university, said Geoffrey Brune, FAIA, of GBA Architecture/Design, who designed the Keeland Center and teaches at the college. But it also meant incorporating sustainable improvements, like natural daylight and ventilation, into what was little more than an oversized metal shed with a sloped roof. That proved challenging for installation of the “green roof” that Brune and a group of architecture students calling themselves the Green Team wanted to include.

Covered with plants instead of a traditional roofing material, a green roof can reduce what Brune called the heat-sink phenomenon or heat-island effect. Large areas of hot paved surfaces can raise temperatures by up to ten degrees. A green roof will soak up the heat rather than reflect it back into the atmosphere. A green roof will also absorb and utilize rainwater that would otherwise run off into the storm system. And it moderates the temperatures of the conditioned interior spaces within the building.

While few buildings in Houston have green roofs, they are becoming very popular in Chicago, which leads the U.S. with more than seven million square feet of roof covered in vegetation. Toronto was the first city in North America to actually make green roofs mandatory on new developments over a certain size. Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and France also have legislated green roofs. With more than 215,000 square feet of flat roofs, Copenhagen was the first Scandinavian city to require green roofs for new buildings with a roof slope of less than 30 degrees as part of its effort to go carbon-neutral.

Brune and his Green Team were determined to install this environmentally significant feature on the Keeland Center. The question: how could they keep the soil from sliding off the roof? Even a Chicago company experienced at designing and installing the more-common flat green roofs didn’t have a definitive solution.

UH Raises the Roof on Green Building

So the students went to work and created a mockup to test various ideas. They discovered that a gauze-like fabric would hold the plant roots in place. A lightweight engineered soil would dry quickly and remain in place. An egg-crate-like underlayment beneath the soil would store water and slowly nourish the plants. (A sprinkler system assures adequate moisture.) The students experimented with various native plants in the mock-up to top the Keeland Center, identifying which selections would thrive in the Houston climate. (Bluebonnets have graced the rooftop for two springs now.)

Completed in 2007, the Keelend Center boasts what is likely the first sloped green roof in Houston, and it stands as a testament to the Green Team’s determination and hard work. The roof was tested just a year later by the fury dished out by Hurricane Ike. It passed beautifully, without a single leak in the building.

Four years later, the roof is now undergoing a facelift of sorts. Even though maintenance of the plants has been minimal, especially once they thickened enough to restrict weed growth, Donna Pattison, a UH professor of biology and biochemistry, is working with students to refresh the growth with new indigenous plants.

The building has been well received by faculty and students, as well as the Texas architecture community, which has recognized it with both local and state awards.

Brune says visitors have expressed amazement that the Keeland Center, with its masterfully executed sloped green roof, could be rescued and revitalized at such an affordable cost. No doubt this innovative building, salvaged from the fate of demolition, will continue to turn heads, including those of students who are looking for a “green college” and find themselves equally amazed to find one in, of all places, Houston!


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