From the classroom to city hall: Students propose green changes for Roanoke buildings

From classroom to Roanoke City meeting room, this is the challenging road that five Roanoke College students took this past spring as part of their group project for Dr. Heath Brown's Politics 201 State and Local Government class. The Green Roofs proposal took students, Jonathan Honchar, Ben White, Kassi Archambault, Bob Novakovic, and Kelsea Pieters, out of the classroom, away from traditional research materials and into the offices of Roanoke City economic development, public works, and maintenance, as well as the conference room where they were treated "as a third-party consulting firm," said Honchar, an environmental policy major who graduated in May.

Honchar said the project allowed him and his partners a chance to "leave the classroom and take our class project downtown and present to a real world audience, but this was also a great networking opportunity for all four of us."

The students combined their various areas of expertise, drawing upon their classroom experience in carbon economy, GIS mapping, environmental impact assessment and ecological economics. They crunched a cost-benefit analysis and determined return on investment for the city in their "Green Roofs" proposal. It is designed to offset storm water runoff and energy costs for some of downtown Roanoke's buildings.

Pieters, a communications major, described the beginning of the group project as "Here's your topic, pick a relevant problem and find a reasonable solution." She said she was "somewhat intimidated" at first since she was placed in the environmental group with students majoring in environmental studies or policy but soon found her niche and was quickly brought up to speed by the other members. When the group was formed, they wanted to provide solutions to the city's flooding problem, Honchar said. "Our answer was the mitigation strategy of installing green roofs on five of the buildings in the city," he said.

They hope the results would reduce rainwater runoff and save the city substantial energy costs.

Brown, assistant professor of political science at Roanoke College, said the students were able to integrate what they had learned in other courses and disciplines into the 201 class, thus "demonstrating their ability to recognize a key component of a liberal arts education."

The students first presented the proposal to Lisa Soltis in the city's economic development office and then to Roanoke officials at the end of April. Their proposal described the problem statement (storm water runoff management), green infrastructure proposal, runoff and energy savings, return on investment calculations and incalculable prestige benefits.  Sources included materials from the city, Philadelphia Water Development, National Risk Management Research Laboratory, the Environmental Protection Agency and green roof technology.

Perhaps most valuable was the hands-on research that these five students did.  They obtained maps and GIS data, rainwater runoff calculations, wastewater toxin levels, energy use and costs, and drainage area by networking with city officials and others.

"We were glad to do research outside of books and newspapers and actually attend meetings, such as the Citizen Storm Water Advisory Committee meeting hosted by Clean Valley Council, where I met city members who supported the proposal with their ideas and written resources," said Archambault, who is majoring in environmental policy.

Pieters said she not only gained a new perspective on environmental and economic relations, but she enjoyed the fact that the group was able to expand its research beyond Roanoke College's campus.

While the educational benefits are far reaching, the results were presented in black and white. Five city buildings were studied - Municipal Building, Police/Sheriff's Department, Roanoke City Courthouse, U.S. Bankruptcy Courthouse and the Roanoke City Jail.  Green roof installation on these five buildings would prevent "an estimated 2.1 million gallons of rainwater from entering the city's storm drains annually ... a 67% reduction in the amount of runoff," according to the students' report. It would reduce a building's annual energy usage by 25 percent during summer months.

Bottom line: "Though it was also calculated that the installation of a green roof on each building is somewhat costly, these rates will be justified ultimately through years of savings in energy costs," reads the report.

The students answered questions about the lifespan of a green roof, its maintenance cost, and actual energy and rainwater runoff during their report to the city.  Honchar said the experience gave them the opportunity to "learn how to market our product to a potential customer," something that both he and White found valuable since they are looking for jobs. After the presentation, Honchar said they immediately began networking and exploring city career opportunities.

But to get to that point, they had to work as a group - real world, yet widely acknowledged as challenging. Brown said group projects are not easy for students because they are asked to resolve complex problems in a collaborative fashion. Throw into this mix one of the students who had no environmental science or policy background, and things might have gotten tougher. This was not the case, Pieters said. Supportive group members and extensive research allowed her to easily become as involved as the rest of the group. "One reason why our project has become such a success is that all members of our group were sincerely interested in the assignment and intrigued by the possibility of making a difference," Pieters said.

But here's the rub:  the ever-looming deadline.  Completion "came down to the wire," said Archambault, even while she was out of town at an environmental and social justice issues conference in Washington, D.C. The presentation was April 20, the last day of classes was April 25, and exams started April 27.

The students did not quail under pressure. Pieters, a rising junior, said without this project, she would not have had the opportunity to see something that "we have all worked on so tediously be taken into high consideration of implementation." 

Read the "Green Roofs Proposal for the City of Roanoke."

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