Raising the Rooftop
Cool solutions the neighbors will love ★ By Anne J. Tate


confined to environmental activists, third-party politicians, and Prius drivers. In the past few years, green has moved from fringe to mainstream, and has even become a marketing strategy for such commercial giants as General Electric and British Petroleum. On the heels of this evolution in consumer thinking comes the concept of green building. While sustainable solutions such as solar panels still may seem too extreme and costly to many, there are more realistic options that can save homeowners money in addition to reducing their impact on the environment. For example, cooling a house in the Southeast in the summer can cost hundreds of dollars a month. One way to cut down on energy bills is to install a green — or vegetated — roof. In addition to cutting utilities costs, green roofs often require little maintenance and generally last longer than their traditional

counterparts. The environmental benefits are significant. Buildings consume energy, radiate heat, and produce pollutants. Their surfaces reflect the sun’s heat and raise the localized temperature, called “heat island effect,” not only increasing the need for cooling but also adversely impacting the surrounding habitat. Additionally, when it rains or snows, the water runoff collects pollutants, overloads sewerage systems, and eventually contaminates rivers and lakes. A green roof counteracts these effects by absorbing heat and water, cleansing runoff, and cooling the air through evotranspiration, or the release of water through leaves. Plus, says Whitney Powers, the president of Studio A, Inc., an architecture firm in Charleston, South Carolina, a green roof “is a nice gesture to neighbors. There’s nothing like a view into someone’s garden.” But, she says, while green roofs are aesthetically pleasing, they are not really the equivalent of rooftop gardens, which would be too heavy for most buildings — especially houses — to support. Structural strength is a concern with green roofs, which get heavier when wet. Powers uses a French company, Soprema,

whose roofs are layered, a type of green roof that usually consists of a membrane, several inches — or feet — of engineered soil, plants, and sometimes root barriers and irrigation systems. They are on the heavier end, but Powers says that Soprema’s product is relatively lightweight, and she was able to install one on a private residence she designed. The other type of green roof is modular, usually made of tiles with low-growing plant species. Some modular systems, such as the grass tiles made by Toyota, require irrigation, but others do not. A company called Green Living Roofs offers sedum tiles that do not need much water or maintenance. In fact, says George Irwin, CEO of the company, sedums thrive best in harsh conditions and without fertilizer. Irwin’s tiles are custom grown (even color matched) in horticultural centers in either New York or South Carolina, are delivered fully mature, and do not require any extra load-bearing capacity. His roofs cost between $12 and $18 a square foot, including installation. They come with a 15-year warranty, but, Irwin says, they can last a lifetime — as will the benefits to the homeowner and the surrounding habitat.


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