Incredible green roof on P.S. 41

Green Roof

Vicki San­do, a par­ent at P.S. 41 in Green­wich Vil­lage, was ahead of her time. Back in 2003 she became an ear­ly advo­cate for more green spaces in cities when she noticed that stu­dents were study­ing plants and insects in the class­room, but had no actu­al plants to study. Rec­og­niz­ing the need for more green spaces, she cre­at­ed a gar­den next to the P.S. 41 cafe­te­ria, which not only added some col­or but also gave chil­dren access to hands-on expe­ri­ence with nature.

Not will­ing to stop there, San­do began explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cre­at­ing a green roof in 2006. After a per­mit­ting and design process that took years, and with the sup­port of the PTA, Jonathan Rose Com­pa­nies, Man­hat­tan Bor­ough Pres­i­dent Scott Stringer, Speak­er Christine Quinn, and many oth­ers, con­struc­tion for the roof of P.S. 41 began in 2010, and final­ly opened to class­es this year. Known as NYC GELL, the green roof is the first of its kind, though oth­er pub­lic schools have green roofs of vary­ing types.

GELL, which stands for Green­roof Envi­ron­men­tal Lit­er­a­cy Lab­o­ra­to­ry, not only adds nat­u­ral beau­ty to the Green­wich Vil­lage school build­ing, but also improves build­ing effi­cien­cy, and will add to the stu­dent hands-on learn­ing expe­ri­ences with the envi­ron­ment. San­do believes that cre­at­ing green space in cities is crit­i­cal, even when find­ing that space takes some cre­ativ­i­ty.

Because more and more peo­ple will be liv­ing in cities, I want to teach the stu­dents how can you improve the ecosys­tem and make it bet­ter. We want as much green space as pos­si­ble and it doesn’t mat­ter how you get it,” San­do said.

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As it turns out, green isn’t cheap. NYC GELL cost about $1.8 mil­lion, a sum that San­do thinks is com­plete­ly worth it. “Through envi­ron­men­tal and edu­ca­tion­al ben­e­fits, over time it will be cost effec­tive. City prop­er­ties are ide­al­ly suit­ed for this and yes, it’s a time com­mit­ment but I would hope more schools will do this.”

The ben­e­fits of NYC GELL are many and var­ied. In terms of the envi­ron­ment, it has become a habi­tat for insects and birds by intro­duc­ing native New York plants back into the envi­ron­ment. The roof cools the build­ing, eas­ing pow­er use, and buffers storm water runoff dur­ing heavy rains.

Per­haps, how­ev­er, the most excit­ing use of the green roof is that for which it was intend­ed: hands on edu­ca­tion. The stu­dents map the roof when study­ing perime­ters and maps, they study how dif­fer­ent types of soil affects plant growth, and they study the insects that are attract­ed to the roof as well. The roof fea­tures a closed-loop solar pan­el sys­tem and a wind tur­bine, to teach stu­dents about renew­able ener­gy.

The stu­dents can also use the space to put on dance and music per­for­mances, or just to read out­side. Roof vis­its are man­aged through a web­site where teach­ers can reserve time on the roof for their class­es, and choose from cur­ricu­lum sug­ges­tions.

The school’s teach­ers were a big part of the design process of the roof, weigh­ing in which plants will best fit their stu­dents and teach­ing meth­ods. (Plant­i­ngs include milk­weed, laven­der, herbs, sage, thyme, and yarrow.) The roof has also cre­at­ed an event space for the school to host par­ties and din­ners for sus­tain­abil­i­ty coor­di­na­tors and for the peo­ple who aid­ed and sup­port­ed the cre­ation of NYC GELL.

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As an exten­sive green roof, NYC GELL has shal­low soil, so it uses main­ly sedums and drought resis­tant plants, pre-grown in Con­necti­cut. This allows for an eas­ier con­struc­tion process because the infra­struc­ture does not need to be retro­fitted, and the plants require less main­te­nance. The school could not afford to rebuild the entire roof with walk­ways, which would have required the abil­i­ty to sup­port a new roof mem­brane.

The entire roof space func­tions as a green roof, aid­ing the envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits, even if fac­ul­ty and stu­dents can only use a sec­tioned off area. There are no offi­cial cal­cu­la­tions of ben­e­fits for hav­ing the roof in place, but they are track­ing heat­ing and cool­ing data to under­stand the long term cost effec­tive­ness of the roof. Accord­ing to San­do, the green­roof has buffered about 157,000 gal­lons of storm water over a year.

Along with the green roof, Sando’s orig­i­nal gar­den remains an active envi­ron­men­tal part of the school, grow­ing herbs, toma­toes, cucum­bers, and peas, among oth­er plants.  The­se plants and herbs are har­vest­ed dur­ing the sum­mer months for the food pantry at St. Fran­cis Xavier Mis­sion.

The gar­den also allows for the school’s Urban Eco Club to have a place to learn about the ecosys­tem. Using a rain bar­rel, stu­dents learn about the impor­tance of con­serv­ing water and reusing stormwa­ter. The stu­dents in the club also learned how to make a gar­den out of plas­tic soda bot­tles, milk jugs, and orange juice con­tain­ers by cut­ting a por­tion of the bot­tle put in soil with the seeds, pok­ing holes in the bot­tom for drainage, and hang­ing up the bot­tles on a fence to allow for growth. While the stu­dents can­not take the­se cre­ations home, they can re-cre­ate the­se gar­dens at home with their fam­i­lies.

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Sando’s pas­sion has caught on. With the release of reports includ­ing PlaNYC in 2007, NYC Green Infra­struc­ture in 2010, and the most recent “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” in June of 2013 there has been a strong focus on the impor­tance of green infra­struc­ture, espe­cial­ly green roofs.

My pas­sion is get­ting kids inter­est­ed in all of this. They are being hand­ed a huge mess and it is our respon­si­bil­i­ty to give them the tools and make them aware of the­se con­cepts. The­se are big ideas but plant­i­ng those seeds, just the aware­ness, kids have such wild imag­i­na­tions for the solu­tions to the­se prob­lems. You don’t want to scare them, you want to make them feel empow­ered by ask­ing them what they can do to fix it,” said San­do.

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If you want to learn more about the P.S. 41 GELL click here.

Image Sources: Pam Seltzer and Vicki San­do