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Green Roof: Demonstration and Innovation in Low

Impact Development

Han Xie

Thematic Paper

ENVA 3021 – Ecohydrology

2018 Fall

As a kind of landscape design language, green roofs also serve as functional

art which could be traced back from 18th century. At present, due to the environmental
benefits and ecological values, green roofs are listed as a component of the
stormwater management practices, in specific, low impact development or integrated
stormwater system. The paper will pay most attention on extensive green roofs,
environmental influe aiming to figure out the effects on stormwater quality and
quantity and the environmental benefits brought on a perspective based on
evapotranspiration through models and studies from resources. What’s more, the
paper will talk about the innovations in design criteria according to the benefits
figured out and draw a brief conclusion about what we can get from green roofs as a
part of the best management practices.

Key words: green roof, stormwater runoff, water quality, evapotranspiration,

microclimate, plant selection, substrate, overwinter survival
Table of Contents


1 Introduction

1.1 Classifications and Comparisons

1.2 Materials and Components

2 Findings - Function of green roofs

2.1 Function in Stormwater Control

2.1.a Figuring Out Water Capacity

2.2.b Identifying water Quality Change

2.2 Function in the Environment

2.2.a Life Cycle Assessment
2.2.b Reducing Heat Island Effect
3 Discussions - Inspiration in Design Criteria

3.1 Substrate Design

3.2 Plant Design and Selection

3.3 Performance in Winter



Living roofs could be commonly divided into two types, intensive(or semi-
intensive) green roofs and extensive green roofs. The type of green roofs could be
defined in several features. (Robert, 2018)

Plant variation

Due to the standardized design criteria of the extensive green roofs, suitable
extensive green roofs plants are typical species of succulents, herbs, grasses and
mosses. However, intensive green roofs could support growth of bigger plants like
shrubs and trees. Semi-intensive green roofs consist of lawns and ground covering
plantations which may need gardening maintenance. (Justyna, 2009)

Depth of Substrates

Because of the requirement of variation in plant species in the intensive green

roofs design, the subgrade of an intensive green roof is deeper than extensive green
roof. The substrates depth of extensive roofs is usually 25-150mm, while the intensive
roofs maintain a over 150mm deep substrates. (Daniel, 2015)

Existance of Hard Landscape Elements

Hard surfaces such as pavements, steps and curbs could rarely be used in an
extensive green roof. More commonly, soft accesses to the planting bed are
encouraged because the extensive green roof is designed to meet the requirements of
stormwater management. However, intensive green roofs are similar to gardens.
They’re required to balance the recreational values, aesthetic values and
environmental values.


Some experts believe that extensive green roofs are a more effective tool for
stormwater mitigation due to the corresponding environmental benefits which could
be predicted. What’s more, while most extensive green roofs are designed
maintenance-free, intensive green roofs usually demand high maintenance. Thus, the
cost may not be applied for the stormwater management. So the essay will concentrate
on the topic about extensive green roofs mostly.

Materials and Components

The components of an extensive green roof could be identified as several

layers, such as vegetation, growth substrate, filter layer, drainage layer, root barrier
and water proofing layer.


Plants are selected trying to meet several requirements in the extensive green
roof design. Like ability to withstand drought conditions, survive under minimal
nutrient conditions, good ground coverage, less maintenance, rapid multiplication,
short and soft roots and phytoremediation. Sedum species are most popular as a
suitable species in extensive green roof planting. (K. , 2016)

Growth Substrate

Substrate could be the most important component in stormwater management

because it essentially relates to filtration, moisture capacity ,pollutant removal and
plant growth. (Daniel and Elizabeth, 2015) Besides commercial substrates, mixture
with low-cost waste materials could also be effective for plant growth and filtration.
(K. , 2016)

Filter Layer

A layer commonly used for separating substrate and drainage layer. The most
common material is filter fabric.

Drainage Layer

The layer is an essential component which balances the capacity of

underground air and water. Common materials for a drainage layer are drainage
modular panels and drainage granular materials. The selection of materials should
take vegetation, scale, cost and construction requirements into consideration. (K.,

Root Barrier

The root barrier is designed mostly for intensive green roofs to avoid potential
physical damage to the roof that may be caused by the growth of root or invasive
roots. It is in the water proofing layer and could be various from plastic forms to
metal forms.

Water Proofing Layer

The water proofing layer is constructed to protect physical or chemical

potential damage caused by water. The water proofing layer may not only be critical
in green roofs, but any conventional roofs. Underlying membrane is essential to
protect the water proofing. (Daniel and Elizabeth, 2015)


Stormwater Control
One of the most important role that green roofs play in stormwater control is
to absorb the water from runoff volume into underground and capture the water for
some time. In other word, detention and retention effects happened during the rainfall.
During the period, more opportunities are provided to reduce the contamination in the
soil. The benefits could be divided roughly into two parts, water quantity and water

Figuring Out Holding-Water Capacity

The discharge of overflow will not start until the field capacity in the
substrates if filled. Field capacity measures the quantity of water stored by a medium
against gravity drainage, which, together with permanent wilting point, called plant
available water once could be released and transformed to the atmosphere through the
plants by evapotranspiration. Thus, evapotranspiration depends on the water storage
capacity. In other word, it is moisture content in the soil and plants influence the
ability of evaporation of plants. Thus, the amount of storm will definitely contribute
to the retention effect of a green roof, that makes the moisture content could be
compared in the same storm. retention effects vary in the amount of rainfall. The
effect of runoff retention and detention provided by a single green roof could not be
specified, but the performance of different roofs

The Figure 1 provides the method of calculating water storage volume through a
controlled situation.

Figure 1. Detention Effect predicted by inflow and outflow hydrograph

The method could be concluded as assuming inflow hydrograph to be the

water volume that will be produced on a hard roof, and assuming the outflow
hydrograph with different types of roof tops. (Villarreal, 2007)

By collecting data from studies done in comparation in a set of given

conditions(Kristin et al ,2007; Vanwoert et al 2012; Carter and Rusmussen, 2006),
some regulations between design criteria and water storage volume could be
concluded. The first is, in a normal stormwater volume design(e.g. 10-year
stormwater volume), the increase of roof slope rate could significantly decline both
the retention and detention effects, and the second is that the types of substrates and
plant species will typically influence water-holding capacities, but no correlation is
shown between the depth of substrates and detention effects. The last is, the drainage
layer which obtains the ability to retain water could help with water holding capacity.
Identifying Water Quality Change

The contaminants affecting water quality could be divided into three kinds:
total solids, nutrients and heavy metals. Unfortunately, either positive or negative
correlation is hard to be proved because the water quality in stream in certain types of
green roofs could not be measured through a convincing general method, but mostly
based on the case studies. However, disorder shows in these studies that may be
hopeless to assume the results as a conclusion.

In research of total solids, the majority of studies reported no enhancement in

total solids removal provided by green roofs compared to conventional roofs. For
nitrogen reduction, green roofs are better choice compared to conventional roofs, but
still the stream obtain a higher rate of nitrogen concentration compared to rainfall.
When it comes the effort to phosphorus reduction, on contrast, most studies show that
living roofs are contributed to phosphorus concentration. The rising concentration of
heavy metals could also be monitored in green green roofs, but could not be proved as
a correlation with green roofs, the causes may be construction materials and
components from substrates. (Daniel and Fassman-Beck, 2015)

The reasons for remaining solid contaminants may be dressed in the design
criteria that instant filtering of water could be allowed and no solid materials could
enter the soil. Moreover, fertilizers, materials used to form layers, and the selection of
certain plant species may contribute to the influence of contamination, but yet it’s
hard to identified. What is clear is that the delay of dissolved materials in the stream
and filtration could be more or less helpful in pollutant removal, and some best
management practices like bioretention swales, infiltration trenches and buffers.
These BMPs may be applicable in a green roof design, which is proved to be helpful
in contamination reduction. (Robert, 2018)

Environmental Benefits
A series of environmental benefits could be listed when constructing a green
roof. The vegetation planting process is prior to clay or concrete construction in
environmental concerns. The carbon emission reduction caused by photosynthesis
could help in preventing from global warming. The reduction of industrial gaseous
waste could prevent the society from many potential disasters. The function in
weather adjustment is dressed in temperature ,humidity and air quality,
evapotranspiration plays an essential role in accumulating the water balance system,
adjusting humidity as well as releasing the vapors and reduce the temperature. The
weather adjustment function will be identified in two perspectives.

Life Cycle Assessment

Life cycle assessment is an approach to solving problem come up about the

total energy saving effect and emission reduction caused by certain projects. It’s
stated in the recent European standard EN 15804(2012), Annex A1(2013) that could
be used to evaluate different types of green roofs compared with standard
conventional roofs, predicted in 40-year cycling model. The data of existing or
predicting waste and emission will be dressed in three types divided in different
scenarios. The production phase scenario figures out the cost carried on the
installation and planting phase. The transport scenario calculates the energy loss and
emission caused by transportation of constructing materials. The end of life scenario
calculating the cost of dealing with the waste when the roof ends up using. The
significance in comparison is that construction of both intensive and extensive green
roofs could save fossil fuel cost and potentially prevent from abiotic depletion
compared to clay roofs. What’s more, due to the environmental benefits of releasing
carbon emission, extensive green roofs hold priority in preventing ozone layer
depletion. However, the cost of intensive green roofs are relatively higher than both
clay roofs and extensive green roofs, as a consequence, intensive green roofs hold a
poor performance in some indicators. For example, PO4 emission. (Caterina et al.,

Life cycle assessment could be an innovation in low impact development and

should be take into consideration in advance of materials selection. The life cycle
assessment could help to demonstrate potential environmental waste provided by
water consumptions and materials of substrates.
Reducing Heat Island Effect

Nevertheless green roofs can reduce the heat island effect significantly and do
contribute to temperature decrease, but questions remain on how and what effort does
a green roof play in heat reduction. Research in Ancona(Italy) shows that although
solar reflection(or albedo) of the greenery contributes to the reduction of solar
radiation, the albedo of plants are much less when comparing with reflective sheetings
or clay tiles. (Elisa and Marco, 2013)There are two factors mainly contribute to the
heat island effect reduction.

The first factor is evapotranspiration. Water storage contained in layers could

be transformed throughout the plants into the atmosphere,changing the surrounding
microclimate in temperature and humidity,m meanwhile, evapotraspiration also
contribute to energy saving and plant growth, which indirectly accumulate biological
integrity in the green roof systems. Thus, due to the relationship between
evapotranspiration and plant available water, the water storage in the substrates could
influence the humidity and temperature. That’s suggested by studies showing that
heat island effects will be strongly influenced by substrate water content (Andrea et
al., 2012).

The other is solar absorption. The absorption coefficient of the soil surface
depends on the color of surface. (Elisa and Marco, 2013)Darker surface is more likely
to absorb solar heat. Combined with shade provided by the plant canopy, the heat
island effect will be limited by the formation of microclimate in surroundings.
Photosynthesis also devote to absorption of solar energy, but much less than

Inspiration in Landscape Design

Substrate design
The consideration of a substrate design, the common design criteria will start
from selective work with several standardized type of substrates, and a given depth
and weight. The use of extensive living roofs are only dressed in where extra load
could not load deeper soil volume and construction for intensive green roofs.(Leonard,
2007) However, despite of the aesthetic values and recreational values that could be
provided by intensive roofs, the extensive roofs hold a priority in energy saving and
stormwater runoff effect, the idea that higher biodiversity will perform better in
stormwater volume is also suspicious according to the above discussion. Moreover,
the selection and pre-test should be highlighted in the substrate design.

In terms of considerations that should be taken into account in substrate design,

various aspects need to be concerned. The first is to encourage higher permeability
and promote high water-holding capacity as is discussed that will help with retention
and detention effects, as well as performing better in microclimate adjustment.
Common materials of aggregates include natural minerals, sand, lava and pumice,
gravel, artificial minerals, perlite, vermiculite, light expanded clay granules, expanded
shale, recycled or waste materials, rockwool, crushed clay brick or tiles, crushed
concrete and subsoil. Lightweight aggregate is encouraged to provides pore space for
air, water and gas exchange, as well as promising instant drainage. The second is to
keep a balance in nutrient supply. In specific, nutrients should be absorbed enough for
sustainable plant growth, as well as maintain the nutrients stable and avoid the
dissolving process in the stream. As a consequence, slow-released fertilizers are
preferred for green roof plant growth and the proper proportion of organic matter
should be considered. Some additional consideration will be taken such as reduce
physical compaction and degradation, promote plant health, prevents freezing in the
layer.(Daniel, 2015)

Due to the complex consideration that should be prepared before the substrate
installation, test should be applied through case studies of the prepared substrates. The
predicted storage capacity of the green-roof could be measured through laboratory
work testing different materials of substrates. (Fassman and Simcock 2012)
Permeability of the surface could be tested by the metrics called ”saturated hydraulic
conductivity” (ASTM E2399, 2015).

Further implementation in design criteria could be dressed in the proposal

substrate depth. After the calculation of plant available water rate, if the design
stormwater depth is settled, the depth of the substrate could be calculated. (Daniel,
Figure 2. Calculation of the Finished living roof growing media depth

Plant Design and Selection

Although no clear relation could be proved between plants and function in
stormwater management or weather adjustment, the planting process it self requires
for specific concerns due to the small volume, high infiltration and other specific
factors applied for the green roofs, the plant selection and design criteria should be
dressed into the case, also taking the weather condition and plant species in North
America into account.

The plant selection for extensive green roofs could be limited because the
ground-cover plant must meet the conditions in limited soil volume, high stormwater
run-off and specific weather in North America. Sedum Species are the most common
plants applied in the extensive living roof design (Leonard, 2007). However, a single
species contribute to low aesthetic potential for the site, a plant selection with various
seasonal colours and species could be more desirable even and there is a need to
overcome the challenge assumed by the limited choice.

The available plant species will be more various if the proposed substrate
depth is larger. And the relation could also be assumed to the design criteria about
accessibility. Besides sedum species used in totally inaccessible roof top, non-
accessible extensive roofs in a 0-5cm depth of the substrate could only plant simple
sedum, but dry meadow communities, drought-tolerant perennials, grasses, alpines
and small bulbs could survive in a substrate depth at 5-10 cm, with soft access for
occasional uses. And for semi-intensive or intensive green roofs, more plants are
available to use. Thus, for green roofs which maintain a requirement in the
biodiversity and aesthetic values, it’s best to choose the site where the roof top can
load a 10cm depth substrate.(Dunnett and Kingsbury, 2008)

Performance in Winter

One of the biggest issue of green roofs in North America dressed in the
challenge of plant survival in shallow substrates during winter time. Besides plant
selection such is talked above, plant overwinter survival highly depends on the depth
of substrate and microclimate(M., 2011). And it’s proved the snow cover will help
with forming a microclimate inside, increasing average soil temperatures compared to
exposed soil in winter. What’s more, the plant structure, canopy and root system may
contribute to the snow accumulation. Thus, a predicted possibility of the relationship
between plants and soil temperatures could be settled.

Related studies were carried in Halifax, testing 14 green roof plant species and
corresponding snow depth and soil temperature, compared with concentional roofs in
different materials with different reflection. The study provides amazing results that
shows green roofs with a 15cm deep substrate have priority in snow cover depth.
Selected plant species and group also differed in the duration of deep snow.
Meanwhile, the temperature range of green roofs as monitored shows correlation with
the depth of snow cover(Jeremy et al., 2014), in orther words, in a given ideal
selection of plant species and substrate depth, the minimum temperature of the
substrate inner the snow cover could be controlled around 0 degree as well as
reducing the maximum temperature, helps with overwinter survival of plants.

Compared to intensive green roofs, extensive green roofs are usually more ecomonic
and effective in microclimate formation and stormwater management.

The Plant Available Water is related to evapotranspiration and retention effects, thus,
the calculation of plant available water could give a prediction to the proposed depth
of substrate when considering designed stormwater capacity.

The pollutant removal plan through green roofs should be associated with other
available best management practices because of the lack in evidence showing the
reduction of contamination after the installation of green roofs.

Throughout the method of figuring out the cost, production and emission reduction,
life cycle assessment can perform as a tool to indicate the potential environmental
benefits carried by the green roof projects.

The substrate layer is a critical design component in the green roof plan, because of
the depth, materials and volume all significantly influence the performance of winter
tolerance, permeability, water capacity, evapotranspiration and plant growth in the
green roof system.

Extensive green roof plant selection can also pay attention to aesthetic values rather
than using the single sedum as the dominant species in planting bed.

Possible approaches may be found through the cooperation of plants and substrate
depth to overcome winter and promote the plant overwinter survival rate as indicated
relationship between snow cover depth, plants and substrate depth.


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