Taking Root – Green Roofs are Sprouting Up

Originally published in COLLECTIONS by Harvey Kalles this should be a concept widely used on watefront homes and cottages in Lake of Bays /Muskoka.

The building on Church Street looks different the first time you see it. Patches of pale green and wispy yellow grass rise from the roof where the tar should be. In stark contrast to the drab towers that define the downtown core, this roof stands out like lightning in a thunderstorm. Have radical environmentalists hijacked the roof in some form of bizarre protest? Not at all; it’s just the ‘green roof’ atop Toronto’s NOW Magazine, the weekly alternative paper whose historical building at Church and Shuter streets dates back to the 1840s.

Indeed, the 511-square-metre roof makes for a remarkable sight. Completed in May 2006, the building’s green roof is part of a totally new manufacturing process that provides the opportunity to turn one’s home or office into both an art form and an environmentally-friendly addition to the city. These roofs may very well be the future of construction, architecture, urban design and real estate; but it’s going to take a lot more participation than just one publisher to make a difference in Canada’s increasingly dense and polluted cities.

A green roof is a roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and soil, and set over some form of water-proof material or membrane. The design can run the gamut from simple grasses to more ambitious undertakings that feature layers of vegetation and grass, while some even incorporate irrigation systems to avoid the manual labour necessary for maintenance.

The main  attraction of green roofing systems, however, is their capacity to radically change the way home owners and developers approach environmental responsibility. This is because green roofs are tremendous insulators, cooling buildings in the summer and heating them in the winter, while lowering often soaring energy bills.

Though developed in the 1960s, green roofs are still a relatively new phenomenon, especially in large urban centres like ours. The green roof was first seen in Germany
in 1961 when Reinhard Bornkamm, a researcher at Berlin’s Free University, published his research on the functions of green roofs. The green roof phenomenon took off in Germany over the following decades and now 10% of all flat-roof homes in the country are green. The highly influential Landscape Research, Development & Con-struction Society was later established in Mainz, Germany in 1975, and the group has set the standard for modern-day green roofing practices. As usual, Europe is well ahead of the curve in terms of environmental and social policies, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that green roofs landed in North America, when the GAP headquarters in San Bruno, California created a 69,000-square-foot green roof.

It would take another decade before Toronto finally developed its own green roof project in October, 2006. The new initiative was designed by the city to help spur environmental change and conservation in an increasingly sprawling and dense city. According to the city’s environmental department, the project – dubbed the Green Roof Incentive Pilot Program – would “support residential, commercial and institutional construction of a variety of types of green roofs.” The city provided a grant of $10 per square metre of eligible green roof space to a maximum amount of $20,000, giving businesses a much-needed incentive to kick-start the project. While the environment is of chief concern (particularly the reduction of storm water runoff, roof-top temperatures and energy use), the roofs are also intended to act as an extension of the city’s green space, functioning as high-rise parks in the sky.

There are typically three different systems available: the intensive, semi-intensive or extensive. It all depends on the amount and depth of planting. Toronto’s system, for example, operates on three different models. The first is a model where all different components of the roof’s area are made to be part of the whole system; the second is closer to a “modular system” positioned above the roof’s original structure; and the third is a pre-cultivated blanket of grass or vegetation that has plants mixed onto the existing roof structure with drainage mats, root barriers and other pre-cautions. To date, the city’s project includes 16 participants including the Toronto Botanical Gardens and the Hugh Garner Housing Co-operative. Review all the participants at www.toronto.ca/greenroofs.

While new products often meet their share of skeptics, with green roofs there are few, if any, drawbacks. Once installed, it can reduce storm water runoff (which would otherwise flow into sewer systems, polluting local bodies of water), filter carbon dioxide from the air, filter pollution from rainwater, extend the lifespan of landfill sites by reducing roofing material waste and add a peaceful and natural sense of wildlife in an otherwise barren urban core. Still, there is a long way to go.

According to a June 16 article in the Toronto Star, Chicago is currently leading the world in green roofs with 280,000 square metres built or in production. By comparison, Toronto sits in 29th place with less than 10,000 square metres of coverage. To add insult to injury, Chicago requires green roofs for any building that it supports financially – Toronto has no such rules or regulations. However, there is hope for expansion as progressive businesses explore the untapped economic benefits of green roofs. The potential for locally-sourced food is a good enough reason to give the project a much-needed kick-start. For instance, the Fairmount Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver grew herbs, flowers and vegetables on its accessible roof, saving its kitchen an estimated $30,000 a year in food costs. In this way, the possibilities to boost Toronto’s economy are almost endless.

Currently, there are several green roofing manufacturers on the Web that will deliver state-of-the-art building systems to your home. Most can be purchased for as low as $6 per square foot, plus the cost of installation (this will vary due to such factors as location, type of roof, etc.). An installed “extensive” green roof with root repellant/ water-proof membranes are available from anywhere from approximately $10 to $30 per square foot. Although the cost of a green roof can be twice the amount of a shingle roof, the savings realized from heating and cooling the building will more than make up for it over time. Plus, a properly installed green roof can last up to 50 years after the initial installation. Traditional roofs, by comparison, typically come with warranties of 25 years.

Several Canadian companies, including Brantford’s ELT Easy Green, provide online forms where you can receive a free quote for any green roof project. Other Canadian companies to look into include Greeninnovations.ca and Zinco.ca. The Toronto-based Greenroof.org also has several links. However, it’s always good to plan ahead; depending on your location and length of the growing season, it can take six to twelve months for a green roof to fully grow.

Looking back at the various green rooftops across the city, they may seem strange and unfamiliar when compared to the rest of the city’s backdrop, but within five years, the city may be filled with them. Indeed, it’s all too tempting to imagine a city that gets closer to nature as it rises closer to the sky – our very own forest in the clouds. While local governments have responded well to the project so far, there needs to be a large public outcry and action on residential homes if any real progress is to be made. After all, it isn’t easy being green.