Registered: December 2015
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Earthen Ovens and Living Roofs:
Connecting more than Clay
Leadership. Sustainability. Local. These words motivate my goals in life, where I strive to lead, create and sustain my impacts, and do my work locally. Universally applicable, those words have sculpted my passion for the environment over the past decade, and are being built into reality during my undergraduate years at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. At the school, I am a junior Environmental Studies major with a concentration in Chesapeake Regional Studies and two minors in Biology and Hispanic Studies. I am the president of the college’s Habitat for Humanity Club for the 2015-2016 academic year, a member of the Student Environmental Alliance (SEA), and a Journeyman and project manager for the school’s Geographic Information Systems Laboratory, where students are paid to learn and work on a variety of projects ranging from crime to environmental health analyses, the latter being what I do.
Before entering college, I grew up and went to high school in central Maryland where my interests in the environment, and current course of study in college, grew out of my committed involvement in a local venturing crew. During my two years of active standing in the crew, I: banded brown pelicans and saw-whet owls in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, removed invasive water chestnuts from the Sassafras River, backpacked many miles on the Appalachian trail, co-led a 1,300 native tree planting, and organized a youth-led two-week educational trip to Costa Rica. Each of these opportunities has helped me promote environmental stewardship, educate, and motivate others in the same way that I was encouraged to make a difference in protection of the natural world by completing projects like this one.
This exploration into local sustainability, the living roof project was accomplished on behalf of the Nicodemus Wilderness Project because it parallels the values of environmental stewardship and protection put forth by the organization. On the college’s campus, we have a small campus garden that resides on a half-acre lot that lies between an Auto-Repair shop and a pub. The garden is named ‘George’s Grove’ after the college’s founding father, George Washington, and is the result of four years of work by the SEA club. The lot would be nothing but barren without the careful management of the student club members, who created an edible landscape perfect for experiential learning. The garden underwent major changes in 2014 with the student-led construction of an earthen oven, which is a wood-fired oven made of clay, brick, and cinder block. The oven was the result of a multi-semester effort, where it was constructed with hand-sculpted clay and empty glass bottles. Covered with a faded blue tarp once finished, the oven was feebly protected from the elements until the living roof was constructed.
Born of an idea conceived by the advisor to the SEA club, but led by myself and the SEA club president, the project sought to protect the earthen oven in the campus garden by building a living roof, which is a roof that is covered with native vegetation over a waterproof lining. After being elected as president of the Habitat for Humanity club, I set a personal goal this year to meld my interests in helping others and environmental protection. To meet that, I worked closely with the president and advisor of SEA to make plans to construct the living roof to protect the oven and eliminate the need for the tattered tarp. Since the roof would need to support hundreds of pounds of soil and live plants, our construction plan emphasized structural support and bracing. As we finalized the blueprint for the roof and shared the cost of the purchased materials, the SEA club president and I recruited student members from both clubs for the collaborative effort.
To begin, we removed the warped plywood sheeting that had been previously hung as a temporary roof. Several 2” by 8” pressure treated boards were cut to approximately four feet with a Miter saw and nailed into the four 4” by 4” posts that had held the plywood. These boards formed the exterior frame for the box frame. The volunteer group divided into two halves, with five people working on installing the ribbing and the other five constructed the box frame that would rest on top of the ribbing and hold the soil in place. Five more four foot sections from the 2” by 8” boards were cut and secured to the exterior frame with two joist hangers a piece, one on either end of the board. The joist hangers were nailed to the exterior frame with six nails each, and the ribbing was complete. The box frame was completed with additional help from the Miter saw, and the frame was carefully lifted and slid onto the ribs. After being secured to the ribbing with screws, the box was draped in a thick plastic lining to protect the wood from the soil moisture and premature decomposition.
By the end of the day, we had ten volunteers who logged forty hours of service total, with some individuals only working for half of the day. In between construction work flows, everyone worked to clean up the garden by pulling weeds and recycling debris. Working efficiently, the students spent eight hours on a sunny Saturday to complete the living roof that stood ten feet off the ground and was six feet long, four feet wide, and eight inches tall. To coincide with natural growing seasons, the installation of the plants and soil is set to be completed in early spring of 2016. Completed in only one day, this project is a demonstration of how a little effort, planning and time can go a long way in guaranteeing the longevity, sustainability, and multi-functionality of a structure.
Primarily offering the overhead protection for the small earthen oven and serving as a habitat for wildlife in an urbanized area, the living roof also serves as a community-wide demonstration of sustainability. Although it took a few months to plan and gather the materials, the living roof did not require a superior level of expertise to construct. The living roof successfully put sustainability into practice, demonstrating to the college and Chestertown community that sustainability is a realistically obtainable goal. It is a powerful example of local, environmental stewardship, where this project is setting a positive precedent for the college and Chestertown to act in line with the environment in mind. This is building sustainably, where structures take advantage of products with multiple functions and reduce the impact on the environment by benefiting the surrounding area. The living roof has done more for the college and the community than we completed in a day, where its physical presence connects the students, the Chestertown residents, and the wildlife in one unifying space.
Following the work both clubs completed in a day, I am incredibly proud to have worked so closely with students from both organizations. It is moments like these that motivate me to do more meaningful service for the environment and to connect as many diverse groups as possible. My time in the venturing crew in high school inspired me to continue my public service and to involve, inspire, and encourage others to do the same. As I prepare to finish my undergraduate career in three semesters, I am thinking of going into graduate school to pursue a degree in conservation policy and/or working for an environmental agency that focuses on tangibly integrating environmental protection and local sustainability into communities.