Campus & Community

Stevens Professor Is One of the World's Leading Experts On 'Green Roofs'

She was just 16 or 17 at the time, but Elizabeth Fassman-Beck still vividly recalls a canal trip she and her family took along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. People lived in huts lining the river, dumping toilets and washing their hair right in the Chao Phraya.

“It really sunk in,” she says. “I made a connection to clean water and quality of life. If we can provide clean water, everyone’s life improves.”

Ever since, Fassman-Beck’s work has been devoted to this mission, from New Zealand to Hoboken.

An associate professor with the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering, Fassman-Beck is an expert in water resources management who joined Stevens in 2013 after 10 years with the University of Auckland (New Zealand). In Auckland, she built five “green roofs” and wrote the first-of-its-kind manual for green roof design for the city; her work helped spark an entire green roof industry in the country.

The co-author of Living Roofs in Integrated Urban Water Systems, published this past March, she won the Wesley W. Horner award in 2014 from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which recognized her work with green roof design.

Now, the Westport, Connecticut, native is making an impact in America.

Green roofs are engineered systems that include plants, layers of non-soil media and a drainage system — all used to capture rainwater and avoid combined sewer overflow, a major problem in New Jersey and cities across the U.S., Fassman-Beck says.

Combined sewer overflow happens when excessive storm water from heavy rains combines with sewage into one sewer pipe, discharging polluted water into rivers and streams. Treatment plants simply can’t handle the overflow.

Green technology like green roofs —and similar structures such as rain gardens and planters — act as a sponge to absorb excess storm water and also as a filter to minimize pollutants.

Keeping storm water out of the sewers is much more cost efficient than building bigger treatment plants, Fassman-Beck says. She’s working with New Jersey’s North Hudson Sewage Authority, which serves Hoboken, Union City, Weehawken and West New York, to update and rewrite their manual on green roof design. She’s also collecting data on the Authority’s rain garden and discussing other possible projects, from building a green roof to installing planters.

Fassman-Beck serves as the Stevens representative on the Hoboken Green Team, a volunteer group that organizes cleanups and runs a plastic bag recycling initiative, among other efforts. She’s an active member of the American Society of Civil Engineers Urban Water Resources Research Council. On the international level, she sits on the Joint Committee on Urban Drainage — the only U.S. representative for this organization that focuses on research in urban drainage and urban water systems. Fassman-Beck has presented her research and attended conferences as far afield as Borneo and France.

“I feel like what we do does make a difference,” she says. “Think globally, act locally — I feel that these are things that I do.”

Photo caption: Stevens Professor Elizabeth Fassman-Beck, with one of her green roofs in Auckland, New Zealand.