Looking Up

Some school districts transforming their open spaces have looked up — to their roofs. There’s been plenty of activity up there, with districts transforming what can be a functional afterthought into a new asset in order to advance strategic goals. There are solar arrays and other green energy, green roofs and new educational and recreational spaces, all presenting myriad options and variables.

Districts looking up consider what is architecturally achievable, permissible policy-wise and fiscally and educationally sound.

First Things First

Districts considering new options for new or existing roof spaces need to proceed with due diligence. Construction projects offer the opportunity to create a custom roof space, with renovation or expansion projects presenting differing criteria. As Joan P. Crowe, the National Roofing Contractors Association’s (NRCA) director of technical services, says, “A structural engineer should be retained to evaluate an existing building and perform an analysis of the proposed modification to determine what needs to be done to the structure. There are no general guidelines or rules to follow because it will be on a case-by-case basis. It is especially important to consult with a licensed professional, since it involves life safety.”

Thus, life safety considerations are one constant, but with so many variables to consider, what have some K-12 schools done to transform the open spaces on their roofs?

Some districts have been attracted to wind turbines. Others are going the way of solar arrays, and en route are encountering the grant and regulatory processes and possibilities, other funding mechanisms and local budgetary realities. Arrangements and proposals to install roof solar panels include, among many others, leasing roof space to utility companies for the green energy systems; to paying only for the energy produced, not the equipment; to placing arrays on the roof of a district operations and maintenance building instead of a school.

The 9,000-square-foot green roof at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., accomplishes several goals simultaneously, according to Moseley Architects, which designed it. The space is an outdoor classroom that conserves energy and absorbs stormwater runoff, according to the firm. The biggest challenge: Placing the roof over the student commons, which needed plenty of light, so the architects placed the green space in a manner that enabled daylighting — through clerestory windows and skylights — to enter the commons below, says Bryna Dunn, Moseley’s vice president and director of Environmental Planning & Research.

Dunn makes another key point: green roofs that are educational must be accessible, which means that they must be very safe. Walls and edge barriers are part of the equation, as are multiple egress options, she says. Then there’s cost. Dunn explains that school administrators should note that green roofs cost more than traditional roofs, and require “different, more frequent” maintenance than traditional roofs.

Dunn adds that she is noticing at least two trends: preparing sections of roofs as green “demonstration pieces” while considering larger applications in the future and “using green roofs to engage students in active learning” in various subjects.

In another tack, schools can create new opportunities by transforming roof spaces as part of broader construction projects. For instance, the green roof atop the Calhoun School in New York City was one part of a major expansion completed in 2004. The 2,500-square-foot roof space, designed by FXFowle Architects, has turned out to be a “win-win situation” for the private institution, says Beth Krieger, Calhoun’s director of communications. Krieger recently showed the space to School Planning & Management as plants bloomed and pollinators worked above Manhattan.

It’s all about versatility, Krieger explains. The roof garden grows vegetables and herbs used to “energize” the school lunch program. That’s just the start: the roof “provides insulation to reduce heating and cooling needs,” according to Calhoun’s website. The growing program is augmented by a green house recently installed on the roof of a setback at a lower level on the opposite side of the building. Additionally, there are light recreation programs, art installations, student poetry and receptions, Krieger says. In another aspect not to be ignored, “Our parents love it,” she adds.

A green roof isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. Krieger recommends that educators contemplating one should ask and answer some questions first, including: “Are you going to have an ongoing budget for plantings?” If there is to be an expansive lawn on the roof, “what about a lawn mower?” And who will cut the grass? Other considerations: what kind of watering system, and what will be the program for perennials and annuals? Map out maintenance arrangements and assignments — will it be a maintenance staff person with a green thumb or volunteers? “It takes a community to keep it going,” Krieger says.

In another aspect, Calhoun’s roof, which hosts educational tours by New York metropolitan area students, exemplifies the school’s interests in community outreach and activism, Krieger adds.

Along this line, districts have transformed their open roof spaces while being mindful of the need to share information with the community about what’s happening up there.

For example, the East Haven (Connecticut) Public Schools shares information online about photovoltaic solar panels atop the roofs of three district elementary schools and a middle school, charting solar production, power use, energy yield, the amount in pounds of CO2 avoided and energy reimbursement in dollars.

Other schools have used their roofs to connect to the community.

For many years, of course, urban school districts have used roof spaces for recreation areas, such as playgrounds and basketball courts. To take one refreshing example, Boston’s Joshua Quincy School has turned its roof space and another space just above street level into a two-tier educational and community asset, and has done so by involving the community.

According to the school, transforming the open space on the roof in November 1999 — it was part of the Boston Schoolyard Initiative project — became an opportunity for a collaborative effort. Administrators, teachers and parents, as well as City Year Corps volunteers, members of Harvard University’s rowing team and neighborhood residents came together to assemble play equipment still in use there, explains Assistant Principal Ping-Kam Chan.

Today, the well-used roof space, next to a rooftop garden, “is a great outdoor classroom facility connecting physical and recreational activities together with educational purposes,” Chan says.

Transforming that roof was a follow-up to a 1998 effort, when community activists also rolled up their sleeves and worked on the rooftop’s popular companion piece below: a play area open to the public on a raised space just above street level. The two urban recreation spaces work together to benefit educational purposes and the community, helping to keep the school and the neighborhood connected, Chan adds.

Likewise, community outreach is combined with student activities atop New Design High School in Manhattan. The 425-student public school, one of five schools housed in the old Seward Park High School building on the Lower East Side, transformed its roof several years ago into a varied, active and even coveted space for students and nearby residents as well. That space, an enormous one covering virtually an entire city block, had been used as a recreation area until the 1970s, when it was closed due to maintenance problems, explains Sarah Baltazar, chief operations officer for New Design.

This is not a meticulous, traditional school space. Baltazar led School Planning & Management on a tour of what instead is a scrappy urban rooftop adorned with professional and art student graffiti — more about that later. One can immediately sense how the space appeals to New Design’s urban student body. “This is the place to be,” she says, which can be a double-edged sword: students frequently pine to go there in fair weather.

The space is used for recreation, school dances and other activities, and equipping it has presented opportunities to forge partnerships with outside nonprofit groups. The non-profit Center for Architecture Foundation, for example, got involved with teachers and students to design and construct a rooftop concession stand and a greenhouse; while a New York activist group, the Open Road Foundation, has lent a hand with the roof’s skate park, Baltazar reports.

The roof is also booked for community use for free through New Design, as per New York City Department of Education rules. Allowable uses include music events, some open skate hours, which are open to nearby residents who present IDs; an international graffiti art show called Rooftop Legends; and an annual independent film festival called Rooftop Films. Teachers and staff are on hand, and students interested in each occasion volunteer to help, with concession sales for example, and interact with organizers and professionals in various fields. Baltazar says the volume of activity up on the roof, primarily in the spring, can make for some long workdays as the semester winds up. “It’s worth it,” however, because “the experience for the kids is amazing,” she adds.

Sure, there are challenges, but going green, providing new educational opportunities, reaching out to the community and providing some rewarding experiences for students: That’s what some districts have achieved by looking up. 


Scott Berman is a Denmark-based freelance writer with experience in educational topics.