Creating Healthier Homes and Livable Urban Landscapes
Everyday life of urban residents is improved by natural resources research that addresses indoor air quality, heating and cooling, building materials and techniques, landscape trees that provide energy savings and aesthetics, as well as wildlife and water quality near urban areas.
Today, U of M building researchers working with the American Lung Association's "health house standards" have coordinated construction of 25 demonstration housing units in St. Paul to test the latest energy efficient, low off-gassing materials and techniques. Health professionals will monitor occupant health in a long-term study. In another partnership, 40 units will be constructed using unique panel construction. The goal is to keep costs low and provide a more healthful house without sacrificing aesthetics or quality. The panels provide an interior finish, structural support, plus air and vapor barriers.
Long ago the University began its work in urban natural resources: The 1898 textbook Forestry in Minnesota by Samuel Green made recommendations for street trees, including mulching. "One tree well-planted is better than a dozen poorly planted," he wrote.
University scientists, more than anywhere else in the country, specialize in improving planting techniques and controlling tree diseases to improve the health of the urban landscape. Long-term studies of established boulevard trees now guide utility work and street repairs to reduce damage. And, new, resilient species have been tested and published in the Right Tree Handbook used by major utilities.
University housing researchers recently partnered with the Wilder Foundation in a project to build 40 affordable and healthful homes in St. Paul. Chipboard panels—24 feet long, 8 feet tall, and 11⁄2 inches thick—replace the usual studs. University researchers will monitor humidity, dust mites and mold, which aggravate respiratory problems.
Protecting Urban Wildlife and Plants
Minnesota's urban areas benefit from College of Natural Resources studies as diverse as songbird habitat, protecting trees from construction damage, outdoor recreation, watershed management, forests' role in the carbon cycle, and control of tree diseases.
Boulevard Tree Planting
A severe storm in October 1949 prompted the first study of the effects of wind on boulevard trees, which was publicized to help municipalities select and maintain trees. Getting trees to grow in the city isn't so easy. Not only is the soil often infertile and compacted; urban foresters must be aware of power lines, sewers, and zoning laws. U of M researchers have shown arborists across the country that correct planting depth is critical to long-term survival. Improper planting prompts stem girdling roots that leave trees susceptible to blowdowns.
Dutch Elm Disease
In the early '50s, forest pathologists recognized the threat of Dutch elm disease and initiated studies to curb the spread. An aggressive control program of early tree removal and elimination of insect breeding sites allowed cities to save many mature elms and make a gradual transition to a future urban forest. The research is a national model, endorsed by cities that followed it. And, the concepts apply to unknown, future outbreaks in other species.
What started as an "endangered species" program—before the term was coined—is so successful that the Canada goose is now considered by many to be a pest. In the early 1970s the population exploded to about 25,000 geese because of ideal food and few predators. University research to limit growth began in the early '80s, without which there would be at least 10 times as many as there are today. Experiments showed that only goslings too young to fly can be successfully relocated. Canada geese on park paths, golf courses, and athletic fields can be very messy neighbors, and flocks that congregate near an airport can cause expensive or life-threatening damage. Today, Minnesota goose management programs save more than $1 million a year in aircraft repair and down time, and the likelihood of an airliner colliding with a goose has been reduced by 90%.
Cold-Climate Housing Research
A cold-climate research facility at the Cloquet Forestry Center allows researchers to examine energy consumption and moisture performance of wall and roof assemblies and indoor air quality concerns. Exterior walls and ceilings can be reconfigured to evaluate different combinations of insulation and vapor barrier materials in 14 chambers. Current research uses radioisotopes to quantify and track building moisture. It will help answer questions like how much is absorbed through the basement floor or foundation, given off by wood as it dries, or enters around joints. This unique research also seeks to identify moisture contributors to mold and mildew growth—the cause of many health problems—from both inside and outside the house.
Ice Dam Prevention
Enormous ice dams on roofs were common through the 1970s and caused extensive damage. University research and extension efforts showed that attic ventilation and insulation is the secret to keeping roofs cold and preventing snow melt. Homeowner and industry acceptance of these new practices spread to other northern states.