Green Tiles

Green tiles will bring plant and animal life to the heart of cities in a water-friendly way and with minimal cost and effort.

Photo of chase leffers
1 0

Written by

Please confirm you meet the following criteria

  • We have submitted the supplemental form linked in the description above
  • We are aged between 14 - 20 as of February 11, 2021
  • We live in the United States or its territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa)
  • We are not employed by, or directly related (parents or siblings) to a current General Motors (GM) or Ashoka employee
  • We have been working on this project for at least three months
  • We consent to Ashoka and/or GM featuring our work on their website, social media, and in other materials regarding this Challenge using the information in our application
  • We confirm we have the rights to use and share any content uploaded on this entry form

Date You Started Your Project


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

The majority of the United States lives in urban areas and in the future, even more will. One resource these cities all underutilize is empty roof space. Roofs all across the country are empty desolate squares of tar and shingles. Humans, plants, and animals don't use them. This wasted space can actually increase the temperature of cities, as the black tar and shingles absorb the heat from the sun.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Green tiles offer an affordable and low-maintenance way to turn any flat roof into an oasis of life. Gree tiles will have built-in water storage and drainage systems, ensuring that they never need to be watered in standard climates. They will be stocked with plants local to the region and will focus specifically on plants that the native bird populations use for food or shelter. When native food is supplied, wildlife will return in force, revitalizing urban ecosystems. Additionally, if enough roofs adopt green-tiles, they would form wildlife corridors for insect populations, homes for bees, and nesting grounds. To accomplish this goal, a Green Tile will have a 1ft deep reservoir of water beneath the planter and a 1.5ft deep growing medium. The Tiles will be linkable-- they slot together and form water-tight seals that can help elongate the life of roofs by reducing the water runoff onto them. The Green Tiles will support mostly shrubs and small bushes so as not to create a safety hazard for older roofs. Green Tiles could be used in other applications too, such as easy installation in home-gardens or even on the sides of streets as part of a city drainage system.

3. Please tell us how you are using science, technology, engineering or math to address your environmental challenge.

I a currently studying engineering at Northeastern University and I hope to bring my new and constantly growing knowledge towards this project. Engineering is humans creating objects to better our world and hopefully the world around us. I will be applying engineering-thinking when working on how to create water-tight, long-term planters out of sustainable materials. This same design mindset is what will drive the creation of the system interlocking tiles and the drainage-connections. Science principles and research strategies will be applied to see how this invention can specifically target and improve the ecosystems of cities, from wildlife to temperature management to storm drainage systems.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

I grew up within the city and was lucky enough to have access to a garden that my mother took care of. Every few days, we would eat home-grown tomatoes, asparagus (younger me was not happy about eating these), and apples. Our backyard was regularly visited by hummingbirds, stellar jays, and many other kinds of smaller wildlife. Many people living in the city, however, don't have substantial backyards and thus don't provide the habitat and food needed to support those animals. I decided several years ago that I wanted to bring more nature into the city. I remember reading an article about how hawks and falcons were being reintroduced to cities across the United States and how cool I thought that was. But cities shouldn't stop at reintroducing a few more birds, cities have the capacity to host many more animals than they currently do, benefitting the earth and the people.

5. Video (Keep it simple, your phone on selfie-mode is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

I began working on my idea after Covid dashed my summer plans. Instead, I pursued several hobbies, one of which was attempting a segmented aquaponics system whose size could be increased at will. I soon encountered several problems with this approach, the most serious of which was that the pumps had to be continually maintained. I then decided that a passive system combining some aspect of aquaponics would be cheaper and less work, leading me to settle on the passive Green Tile concept.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

This project is one the first of its kind that seeks to create spaces for wildlife in one of the most underutilized parts of cities- the roofs. Most green roof solutions are tailored for a specific roof, increasing cost, and decreasing accessibility. Green Tiles will be much cheaper than those options, providing access for regular homeowners. Additionally, Green Tiles are drought resistant and will require no maintenance, making green roofs much more manageable. Finally, Green Tiles will be made entirely of sustainable material, instead of the common plastic that most planters are composed of.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made.

I am still in the prototype development stage in this project and have already completed one prototype. In the first prototype, I grew celery and squash in a water-wise, hands-off fashion. I only had to water the plants once to get them started, and then not again until the prototype began breaking and I had to end the test. The celery grew well and my family enjoyed eating them. I plan to finish the next iteration of the design before the end of January. This design will feature a passive basin, unlike my previous prototype which had a pump that broke after only a month of use and required constant electricity. Once this prototype has been developed, I plan to build a couple of models, varying the depth of the basin and the growing medium, to test water-retention and to attempt to reduce the level of human intervention needed to grow things down to a negligible amount.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

I plan to finish the next iteration of the design before the end of January. This design will feature a passive basin, unlike my previous prototype which had a pump that broke after only a month of use and required constant electricity. Once this prototype has been developed, I plan to build a couple of models, varying the depth of the basin and the growing medium, to test water-retention and to reduce the level of human intervention needed to grow things down to a negligible amount. After the newest prototypes have been completed, I will begin to contact businesses to see if they will install the Green Tile on their roofs. I believe businesses will be incentivized to do this to offset the carbon they produce and for the brand-improvement.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

I was inspired to increase the amount of greenery in city spaces by a friend that had become passionate about urban farming and food deserts. Initially, I had no idea of how I could make a difference in that area besides volunteering in parks. Now, I am working to getting more people inspired by the idea of growing plants, native or for food, in the most underutilized part of a city. Now, I am working on getting more people passionate about this idea, a process that began with my first teammate.

11. How would you partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

Although I don't know what the other changemakers are planning for this challenge, I know that increasing greenery is universally accepted as a way to mitigate climate change. I could work with other changemakers to expand Green Tiles to cities across the country. I have seen one application mentioning the creation of bioplastics. Green Tiles could be modified to support corn or other crops grown sustainably in the city. For food solutions, we could work together to help feed people in cities.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

I think the largest initial market for Green Tiles is for businesses and public buildings. These organizations will buy-in to the Green Tiles to offset the carbon they produce, which in the face of a carbon tax is in itself a good reason and to give their brand a greener image, which may make consumers more likely to use their products. Lastly, I believe that most people enjoy listening to birds in the city or enjoying flowers and greenery in their city. Certainly, no one enjoys shingled roofs.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Family support

14. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you? You’ll be able to select only one option.

  • Marketing Strategy

Are you employed, or directly related (grand-parents, parents, sibling) to a GM or Ashoka employee?

  • No

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Word of mouth

Find this idea inspiring? Add your own!

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Hector Moyeton

Chase, thank you for sharing your project with us. It is definitely very interesting to see a modular approach to building green roofs that could potentially be tailored based on the economic situation of the person/business or time availability. The fact that you want something that requires minimal maintenance is definitely a plus. Since you plan to target primarily businesses, have you considered how your project stacks up against other alternatives they might have like solar panels, for example?