Thursday, August 28, 2008

Opportunities for enjoying September outdoors

Opportunities for enjoying September outdoors

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School is open, the pools are closing, and Labor Day is upon us. Much as I hate to admit it, summer is just about over. But that doesn’t have to mean an end to outdoor activity for the year. Indeed, the clear, dry days of September offer opportunities no other month can provide.

It’s a great time of year for a visit to a prairie remnant or restoration area. By the time September rolls around, the plants of the tallgrass prairie, which once defined central Illinois, have reached their full height—some, like compass plant, with flower stalks more than ten feet tall. Despite having lost a bit of color due to the lack of rain in recent weeks, Meadowbrook Park in Urbana has never been more beautiful, and other area prairie restorations, including Buffalo Trace in Mahomet, and those at Allerton Park near Monticello are also in their glory.

The profusion of late-summer prairie flowers is accompanied by a profusion of insects. Dragonflies are out now in force, and butterflies can be so numerous in places it’s difficult to focus on individuals long enough to identify them. In our area you can usually see more Monarch butterflies in the second and third weeks of September than at any other time of year. Spurred on by cooler, shorter days, Monarchs from southern Canada and the northern U.S. collect here as they journey to their wintering sites in the mountains of central Mexico.

Birds are on the move now, too, as anyone who maintains a hummingbird feeder can tell you. It’s a good time to see shorebirds, including plovers, sandpipers, and the like as they stop over on their journey from the northern tundra where they breed to the Gulf Coast and points south where they winter. Look for shorebirds probing for food around the edges of retention ponds and any wet areas that remain where farm fields were flooded earlier in the year.

Our local rivers may be too low for paddling in September, but that means conditions are perfect for wading in to turn over rocks and explore the life of these streams. Crayfish are superabundant now, and the low clear water makes it possible to find live mussels if you take the time to look for them.

If the heat of summer kept you from getting out on your bicycle, now is the time to put some air in those tires and get back in the saddle. In weather like this you could try riding to work, or you could reduce your carbon footprint by bicycling to a farmers market.

September offers great satisfactions for people who value local foods. Hot weather crops are plentiful now, and by the end of the month some of the cool season vegetables may even be back again, along with winter squash and the like.

The earlier onset of evening in September means you don’t have to be out much past dinner to see bats on the wing as daylight fades. Stay out a bit longer, though, and you realize that this can be the most comfortable time of year to sleep outside in our part of the world. If school and other activities prevent family camping trips, they need not kids from having one more backyard sleepout for the year.

September may be the month for letting go of summer, but letting go need not happen all at once.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Green roof on new Business Instructional Facility an example of UI campus as living, learning laboratory for sustainability

Green roof on new Business Instructional Facility an example of UI campus as living, learning laboratory for sustainability

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When the term “green” is applied to buildings, it typically refers to features that reduce energy consumption—effective insulation, efficient heating and cooling systems, electricity-saving lighting setups. And the University of Illinois College of Business’s new instructional facility nearing completion at the corner of Sixth and Gregory in Champaign has all of these things. In fact, the Business Instructional Facility will even generate some of its own electricity with solar panels, and it is set to earn one of the highest certification levels recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council.

But the Business Instructional Facility also incorporates a “green” feature that is literally green, its roof. (Or parts of its roof, anyway.)

One 1200-square foot section on the 4th floor of the building and one smaller section over the auditorium will feature this innovation, which is gaining momentum worldwide as an alternative to conventional flat roofing. Unlike a conventional flat roof, which is designed to move water off the top of a building as quickly as possible, a green roof features a layer of substrate that detains water, and in which low-maintenance plants are grown. Beyond discharging less water than a conventional roof, green roofs are said to discharge cleaner water, thanks to the filtering effect of the substrate and the fact that runoff doesn’t pick up additional pollutants from the roof itself.

A green roof also benefits the immediate environment by remaining cool in warm weather, rather than storing and radiating heat the way a conventional roof does. At the same time, it also insulates the top of the building as or more effectively than a conventional roof.

The green roof on the U of I’s Business Instructional Facility will differ from other green roofs around the country in an important way. Faculty and students from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering will be studying it to quantify how well it performs compared to an adjacent conventional roof.

With support from the University of Illinois Environmental Council and the College of Engineering, professors Arthur Schmidt and Charles Werth and a team of students are currently installing monitoring equipment on both roofs. [Photo: Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Arthur Schmidt and students attach the solar panel that will power their monitoring equipment on top of the Business Instructional Facility's green roof.] They will measure how much precipitation falls on each roof, how much of that precipitation runs off into the storm drain system, and how much water is stored in the soil of the green roof. Sensors in that soil will allow the researchers to track how moisture migrates across the green roof and how quickly it returns to the atmosphere.

Schmidt and Werth and their team will also compare the quality of the water that drains from both the green roof and the conventional roof by means of automated samplers that will test for pollutants. In addition, researchers will assess how the insulating capacity of the green roof compares to the insulating capacity of the conventional roof by monitoring air temperatures above and below them.

The data gathered in the process of this research will be used as material for study in current civil engineering classes, where students are learning about sustainable building and water-management practices. The knowledge that comes from this research also will help architects and engineers working on future projects--on campus, where all large new construction projects must meet green building standards, and in the world at large--know more precisely the benefits a green roof can provide.