Roof With a View

September 14, 2015

Text by Charlotte Gaeng

Lieve Dierckx isn’t afraid of heights. She just completed a summer residency at swissnex San Francisco working on a project with a bird’s eye view of the city: Building a green roof on top of a school, seeded only with native plants.

Dierckx, a native of Belgium, is working toward her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering under Dr. Stephan Brenneisen, of the Green Roof Competence Center at the ZHAW in Wädenswil.

In 2013, Brenneisen visited San Francisco to participate in a discussion and collaboration on green roof policy with local experts, organized by swissnex. The dialogue continued over the years, and Dierckx’s project is one of the outcomes. A green roof experiment that, if successful, could propagate around the city.

Greening the City

Urban ecology has developed greatly over the last few years. As more and more people live in urban areas, and as these areas expand and there is less green space on the ground, the impact of climate change is especially perceptible in cities. Creating green urban spaces can help reduce these negative effects.

Lieve, who previously studied philosophy, history, graphic design, and business, is no stranger to nature. She fell in love with the Swiss mountains, became a ski instructor, and even a certified hiking guide all while working in a bank.

But her San Francisco research project atop the Drew School, already committed to sustainable architecture with a living wall, aims to develop a long-lasting and reproducible method for cultivating low cost, low maintenance green roofs in a city with dramatic microclimates.

Lieve Dierckx in San Francisco

Drawn to the Top

“Since I was a kid, one of my hobbies and passions has been mountaineering, hiking, and rock climbing,” says Dierckx. “High in the alps I discovered plants that live with poor soil and resist harsh weather conditions such as wind, intense sunshine, frost at night, long winters, and intense rainfall.”

“I was always fascinated by the beauty and the strategies of those plants and flowers that look so colorful and often fragile, surviving in this kind of environment. Roofs often provide similar kinds of conditions and those plants that survive on the roofs have a similar strategy and adaptation to extreme climate and weather. Maybe that’s why I like it so much to be on those roofs.”

There are currently no government subsides or support for living roofs in California. But if Dierckx obtains positive results with her cheap, drought resistant, and minimal maintenance methods, she might be able to make green roofs more accessible.

She also says that the location of her test plots on the roof of the Drew School amplify their ability to educate. There, says Dierckx, teachers will integrate the green roof into their classes, where young people will hopefully discover and develop the sensitivity to environmental and ecological awareness in an easy accessible way.

“By creating green space on the roof, I can give something back to nature from what continuously is taken away,” she adds. “The idea of being able to provide substitute habitat for species that have difficulties surviving on the ground, or to provide a corridor function for species, makes it even more exciting.”

swissnex is also excited and proud of helping her connect, experiment, and grow a green roof in San Francisco.


Native plant Drew school roof, San Francisco

Want to plant native plants in San Francisco ? SF Plant Finder is a great resource.