A Dearth of Earth Overhead: Corvallis, OSU, and the Lack of Green Roofs

Oregon State University is celebrating the news that it ranks seventh on the Top 20 College & University list for the largest use of green power among higher education institutions within the Green Power Partnership. OSU should also be commended for the fact that all buildings constructed since 2005 have been Silver, Gold, or Platinum LEED certified. And yet in one specific area of sustainable infrastructure and green design—green roofs—OSU has fallen well short of both other Oregon University System schools and its own stated goals. Corvallis as a whole is no better.

Green Roofs

Green roofs, or eco-roofs, are roofs that are partially or completely covered with vegetation. Whether sown with sod, succulents, wildflowers, or vegetables, there are innumerable benefits to green roofs. They absorb and delay rainfall runoff, which helps prevent flooding and reduces the volume of pollutants entering streams and rivers. A green roof can also reduce a building’s energy needs by up to 50 percent, decrease air pollution, sequester carbon dioxide, provide wildlife habitat, reduce noise, and counter the heat island effect generated by dense urban areas. Plus, they’re really aesthetically pleasing.

One of the national leaders in green roofing in both acreage and incentives is Portland. Since 2008, Portland has provided up to $5 per square foot for eco-roof projects within city limits; 355 homes and businesses now have eco-roofs. Portland hosts both the startup eco-roof manufacturer Columbia Green and an ecoroof industry group, the Green Roof Information Think Tank (GRIT).  The city maintains an eco-roof blog, Portland State University houses a Green Roof Design and Testing Lab, and even Portland’s Walmart is getting in on the action, constructing a 40,600-square-foot green roof.

And Corvallis? Nada.

Corvallis has no green roof incentives, tax breaks or otherwise, and no significant green roofs, public or private. The only public green roof to be found in Corvallis outside the university is a small, 25-square-foot roof at Starker Arts Park , built by Corvallis Green Building Task Group, part of the Sustainability Coalition.

Look, Portland isn’t offering tax breaks for green roofs because the mayor loves watching chickadees flit across the grass—it’s because billions of gallons of rain can flow off rooftops in a single storm, exceeding Portland’s pipeline and wastewater treatment plant capacity. Untreated sewage then overflows into the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Studies done in Portland have shown that green roofs can reduce annual runoff volumes by 40 to 60 percent, and they are far less expensive that conventional projects involving larger pipes and new wastewater plants.

While Corvallis has an advanced combined sewer overflow system, non-point source water pollution is one of the Willamette’s major pollutants. The Corvallis City website claims that, “by selecting building products that are designed to lessen their impact on our environment, we consciously choose to improve the condition of our environment,” and yet it has shown little interest in installing or encouraging green roofs.

OSU, also disappointing

For an institution that proclaims itself ready to “demonstrate sustainable practices in the University’s day-to-day operations,” Oregon State University sorely lacks one of the most visible and effective sustainable infrastructure practices.

OSU’s Sustainable Facilities Committee (SFC), formed over eight years ago, is tasked with making campus infrastructure and operations more sustainable. Their Campus Master Plan lists numerous policies that “consider incorporating energy conservation techniques” and “proactively and strategically incorporate sustainable design and techniques” in construction projects.

That said, neither the Kelley Engineering Center, the 18,000-square-foot Hallie Ford Center, the 105,000-square-foot Linus Pauling Science Center, the new Native American Cultural Center, or the new 34,500-square-foot Basketball Practice Facility—all built after the SFC’s master plan—have green roofs.

An array of green roof research plots was installed at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture in 2007, but until last year, when student volunteers built a six-foot by ten-foot green-roofed tool shed south of the ALS Building, nothing more had been done. More baffling are reports from an OSU student organization, the Green Roof Committee, that the Kelley Engineering Center, completed in 2005, originally had designs and funding for a green roof before the administration withdrew support. Funding was then given to Linn-Benton Community College, whose White Oak Hall now features a 9,000-square-foot green roof.

Granted, green roofs aren’t easy to build. There are a number of interdependent variables to be considered: growing medium materials and depth, plant selection, irrigation, sloped roofs, weight loads, a building’s structural integrity, and so forth. But this is no excuse: green roof design is well established, and OSU has had research plots on campus since 2007.

And although green roofs can be costly—installation costs for eco-roofs in Portland range from $5 to $20 per square foot—this isn’t a legitimate excuse, either. For one, that price is expected to come down as green roofs become more common. Second, green roofs in Europe have outlasted traditional roofs by 30 years. Studies have also shown that while green roofs may be more expensive initially, they save substantial amounts of money in the long term.

The worldwide eco-roof industry is growing rapidly. A report by Lux Research released last year claims that city incentives for green roofs will enlarge the market to $7.7 billion by 2017. Corvallis and OSU should be heavily invested within this market, for the market’s sake, the Earth’s, and our own.

by Nathaniel Brodie