UNL Green buildings
Office of University Communications
Lincoln, Neb., July 31st, 2013 — Richard Sutton Richard Sutton moves a sprinkler into position on top of the Larson Building. Sutton is developing less expensive methods to plant prairie grasses and wildflowers on green roofs. Since 2007, he has established six of the native prairie green roofs in Lincoln. (Photo: Troy Fedderson / UNL University Communications) Hairy grama is one of prairie grass varieties planted by Richard Sutton on the Larson Building green roof in downtown Lincoln. Other species planted include blue grama, sideoats grama, little bluestem, plains muhly, sun sedge, fringed sage, purple prairieclover, sedum kamachaticum, sedum stefco and sedum album. (Photo: Troy Fedderson / UNL University Communications)
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Where others see black tar and white reflective rooftops, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Richard Sutton sees a green opportunity.
A professor with a dual appointment in agronomy and horticulture, and landscape architecture, Sutton is developing less expensive and more reliable procedures to grow native prairie grasses and wildflowers in place of traditional sedums in green roof applications.
Sutton started the research project in 2007, installing his first prairie grass green roof on top of Lincoln's Pioneers Park Nature Center. Today, he has five green roof projects in progress, including a 6, 000-square-foot area on the Larson Building in downtown Lincoln.
"Using prairie grasses in green roof applications was just something that looked interesting to me, " Sutton said. "It just seemed like a great way to put together my skills and interests."
His goal is to develop and market native grass seeds that grow easily on rooftops, similar to what UNL does for crops like wheat and corn.
"I also want to remove the oddity label from this type of green roof, " Sutton said. "I want people to see it as a commodity."
The traditional plant used in green roof applications is sedum, a shallow root succulent that is drought tolerant and disease resistant. Its use in green roof applications was developed in Germany over many years. Today, its use has been imported to other parts of the world due to innovations developed in German applications.
Sutton is working to show that native prairie grasses can be just as successful as sedum in green roof applications. For the Larson Building project, Sutton started planting low-maintenance native grasses in spring 2012. This growing season, he has added wildflowers to the mix.
The site - which doubles as a communal area for individuals living in Parkhaus, the apartment portion of the Larson Building - requires a once-a-year mowing (in early spring) and water as needed during dry spells.
The soil used ranges from four to eight inches deep. It is a mix of expanded shale and clay mingled with bits of sand and compost. The mix is a lightweight substrate that helps meet load restrictions that come with green roof applications and is acceptable to the grasses.
On the Larson project, Sutton used a specialized garden seeder that plants evenly in rows. Sutton said the method is three times faster than hand planting. It also helps reduce costs as seed is cheaper than plants.
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