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Red Bricks, Green Roof

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sustainable design highlights native Texas plants

by Carlos Anchondo '14

Four stories above the ground, a garden flourishes under the South Texas sky. The long, thin leaves of Bear-grass rustle in the breeze alongside ornamental Blue Grama. Devil’s Shoestring thrives next to Blackfoot Daisies and Texas Cupgrass. Iconic Bluebonnets peek out as the greenish-white flower of the Twist-Leaf Yucca extends upward in the afternoon sun.

More than 20 different plant species call the green roof on the fourth floor of the Center for Sciences and Innovation (CSI) home. A majority of the plants are grasses endemic to Texas and the Hill Country. The green roof is the brainchild of Trinity biology professor Kelly Lyons, who works with her undergraduate research students to maintain the space.

With 12 inches of soil, Lyons says that the green roof is “the first of its kind” in South Texas. The depth of soil allows grasses like Big Bluestem to take root and prosper, creating a garden that accurately resembles the natural landscape. Massive I-beams support the green roof from below, making it possible to include native grasses in the roof’s design. All total, there is 3,800 square feet garden roof and plaza.

Lyons and her students have utilized the green roof not only to showcase the beauty of native Texas plants, but also to conduct research on which species can mitigate CSI’s temperature most effectively.

“The sustainable aspect to the green roof is the ability to more easily maintain temperatures in the building below,” Lyons said.

Lyons oversaw the green roof design team and worked with landscape architects to incorporate elements that would honor Trinity’s South Texas location and its rich history with Texas farmers and cattle ranchers. Biweekly maintenance of the green roof is conducted exclusively by Lyons and students, and students often take initiative and perform upkeep without Lyons present.

Biology major Austin Phillippe ’16 is a dedicated steward of the green roof. He is spending the summer leading a decomposition study that examines how invasive grass species can alter the composition of Texas soil and influence the health of native grasses. Phillippe says the green roof is a perfect place to showcase the beauty of native Texas species that people could plant in their own gardens.

“Spaces like the green roof and our labs show that the University is invested in students and our research,” Phillippe says. “They trust us to take good care of these things, and it means a lot to know that the University really trusts undergraduates.”

Fellow biology major Kendall Kotara ’17 also helps with green roof maintenance and says the space gives her an added appreciation for biology and conservation. In terms of upkeep, Kotara, Phillippe, and the other researchers mostly pick weeds and clip seeds prior to re-germination so that the green roof is not overpowered by one specific species.

Kotara says she gravitated toward research with Lyons because of her passion for conservation.

“I have always loved the environment,” Kotara says. “The green roof helps us learn more about how we affect the world, even indirectly, and how we can keep what we still do have as natural as possible.”

The green roof uses recycled water for irrigation, some of which is provided by rooftop capture and also through a cistern that pumps water up to the roof. Interspersed on the green roof are four duo benches that Lyons says are quite popular with Trinity students, faculty, and staff. Signs provide scientific and informal plant names, courtesy of facilities services.

Lyons says that while the green roof is beautiful year-round, it is particularly gorgeous in the spring and fall months when everything is in full bloom. She is proud that Trinity has emerged as a pioneer in green roof design and sustainability and looks forward to taking care of the space with her researchers in the years to come.

Carlos Anchondo is a writer and editor for marketing communications and a 2014 graduate of Trinity. He can be found on Twitter at @cjanchondo or at canchond [at]