Stewart pursues sustainability initiative based on student feedback

For most students, November brings the thought of the semester finishing, exams starting, and the winter break setting in.

But MSU President Siobhan Stewart has her sights set on the spring.

Stewart’s green roof initiative, a project designed to convert the third-floor balcony of the McMaster University Student Centre into an eco-friendly sitting area and garden, is on track to be completed for next summer. The project was a key platform point of her 2012 presidential campaign.

Green roofs have been growing in popularity at universities and other institutions across Canada. Stewart explained that the inspiration for the green roof  at Mac came from two students who were involved with OPIRG, who proposed the project three years ago.

The idea of converting an already existing space into a more workable and sustainable place was an appealing choice for McMaster for a number of reasons, among them the concern of an overpopulated campus with too little public space.

“Students are always talking about the need for space on campus,” said Stewart. “And as many can imagine, new buildings don’t sprout up every day.”

She noted that part of McMaster’s unique situation is that campus is “landlocked,” bordered by residential neighbourhoods on three sides and Cootes Paradise on the other.

Mac student Melanie Fox-Chen is also passionate about the green roof project. The fourth-year biology student was an intern at McMaster’s Office of Sustainability this summer, and spent her term investigating the best practices of green roofs. The advantages of such a project are numerous, she found.

“It maximizes the usable amount of space on campus, which is really good,” Fox-Chen explained. “It just provides a green space where students can seek to relax and unwind from a stressful day.”

Her research, which looked into a range of issues, including food production, plant life, rainwater collection, and community involvement, was used to create a survey that was given to students this summer.

The feedback from the survey, which drew 600 responses, was used in drawing up further plans for the project. The responses showed that the majority of people would appreciate a “calm, soothing environment,” while they also indicated support for edible plants to be grown, as well as species native to Southern Ontario.

Stewart stressed this element of student feedback as a means of making decisions.

“I’ve been trying to consult a lot with students. From an efficiency standpoint [it’s not ideal]… I could have just put everything together, but that’s not my style.”

Only so much progress can be made on the roof at this point, however. The organizers may have a sense of what people want, but before any construction happens, the MSU must wait while the project is out to tender.

“It’s not like the MSU can just get a shovel and go to town. It doesn’t work like that,” Stewart said in explaining the process of getting university approval.

The next phase is choosing a plan for the space. The MSU, in partnership with Facility Services, invited eight architects to submit proposals for their services in October. The team chose a firm to contract out for the work, and will now see three more specific sets of plans drawn up. Before a final design is chosen, Stewart will seek further student feedback.

It is not clear whether or not the roof will be completed by the end of the academic year, Stewart said.

“My goal is at least for it have been started before the end of my term, or for all of the logistics to be done…so all it would take would be a green light.”

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