From the Top

The green industry has reached new heights, thanks to the advent of rooftop landscapes. The green-roof trend continues, but becoming a part of it requires sound knowledge, whether you are installing plants and materials or simply supplying roof-ready greenery. With the right approach, including green-roof services to your lineup can lead to new streams of revenue.


Consultant and publisher Linda Velazquez believes, “The interest and, therefore, demand for green roofs has outpaced the supply for several areas of this growing industry, generally in the professional services areas, specifically in the design/build, installation and maintenance areas. Well-educated people who understand the dynamics of the individual green roof components, as well as the system as a whole, are necessary for high-quality installation services to sustain the demand, which are needed throughout North America.”

Registered roof consultant Robert Humbarger, president and founder of ConSpecT Services, notes: “Demand is definitely growing. Certain things influence that, such as Chicago's roof energy code, which requires white (reflective) or green (vegetated) roofs. And so, there's a lot of push in that market, and markets like it, to come up with green roof designs. The greatest growth in green roofs is in these urban centers.”


Other green-roof-growth cities include Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; Milwaukee; Atlanta; and Seattle. “Those cities have made it very fashionable,” says Humbarger. From coast to coast, municipalities are increasingly receiving incentives to go green up high. Main reasons include the environmental benefits of reduced storm-water runoff and lowered summertime temperatures in the inner city, which, in turn, amounts to less smog and better breathing.

“The mixed-use demand has truly skyrocketed within the past four or five years,” says Velazquez. Velazquez, whose background is in landscape architecture, sees the trend more prevalent within “the various government and business communities, in terms of greening city halls and other municipal buildings and commercial and industrial structures.”

“It is also a trend,” says Humbarger, which will probably ebb and flow in the coming years. And the trend isn't limited to major metropolises. Libraries, hospitals, doctors' offices and even funeral homes are putting nature atop their buildings. “These are mostly the result of individual owners' desire to be more earth-friendly and promote it for their own reasons. Hospitals have had it installed because it increases recovery rates of some of their patients.”

On the rise are the wants of residents of private dwellings who are re-thinking what a rooftop garden can mean to the environment. Velazquez notes that the multi-family residential market, as well as “numerous single family and small-business applications,” have been seen in various regions. New York City is the site of a growing number of apartment building roofs going green, thanks to the grassroots efforts of the Earth Pledge Foundation. Condo developments — one a 228-unit complex and another reaching 12 to 16 stories — in Minneapolis and nearby Woodbury are planned for green roofs this year.

Another sure-fire sign that the trend is hot can be seen from sales figures from a leading green-roof product supplier, ABC Supply Co., (Beloit, Wis.), makers of the GreenGrid System (movable roof-top garden segments). In 2002, ABC Supply sold 15,670 square feet of GreenGrid, and by 2003 it had sold 32,000 square feet. In 2004, the company sold 109,896 square feet.


A deterrent to saying “Yes” to a rooftop garden is primarily the higher cost of installation. Compared to traditional roofing, installing a green-roof system is roughly three times more expensive. Commercially speaking, however, this argument doesn't go far with a growing number of service establishments.

Carrabba's Italian Grill, a nationwide restaurant chain, features 1,000-square-foot L-shaped planters that overhang wide front and side porches — there are now 100 stores in 29 states with the rooftop attraction.

McDonald's Corp. opened its 20,000-square-foot Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonald's in Chicago in April 2005 with a garden atop its second story roof.

Gap Inc.'s office in San Bruno, Calif., features a rooftop garden with six varieties of native grasses.

Advocates for green roofs point to short-term vs. long-term cost considerations. Consider heating and cooling bills. In the summer, green roofs allow warm water to evaporate more easily, thereby pulling heat from the building and keeping cooling costs down. During the winter, green roofs help insulate the building, lowering heating costs. Studies have shown that heating and cooling costs can be cut by up to 25 percent.

The life of the roof is also extended with greenery atop, thus displacing costly upkeep and eventual replacement. Some estimates — legitimized by scientific studies — put the extended life at 50 percent longer.

“Ultraviolet rays from the sun is the greatest deteriorating factor of any roof system,” notes Humbarger. “Inspecting an old asphalt built-up roof — tar and gravel, or smooth asphalt — and you'll find that the sun drives the light oils, which are volatile, from the asphalt and eventually into the atmosphere. In time, the roofs become brittle, adding to the deterioration of the roof.

“If the roof system is designed so it has good drainage, and a green roof growing medium is placed over the asphalt, the green layer protects the roof from the sun and keeps the waterproofing membrane cooler. This adds to the life of the roof.”

Today there are electronic leak-detection systems that are incorporated directly into the design of the green roof. When a leak through the waterproof membrane is detected, a building supervisor can pinpoint its location, remove the section of proximate green roof, make repairs, then simply replace the section.

Says Humbarger: “Flat roof systems on most commercial structures are out of sight, out of mind, and no one is concerned about them until water is coming through the ceiling. At that point, there's already been enormous damage done.”

The feared lawsuit is evidently on the minds of many. Lawsuits over roofs account for almost 80 percent of construction litigation. Some building contractors, notably in Chicago, are using green roofs as a preventative measure against lawsuits, another long-term cost benefit.


But an affirmative cost analysis comes to naught if the approach is made with blinders on. Highly engineered green-roof systems utilize more than just sod and irrigation. Take the 10.4-acre green roof atop the Ford Rouge Center facility in Dearborn, Mich., as an example. Instead of sod, there is an inch-deep growing medium that fully supports the root system. And the plants selected are drought-tolerant as there is no irrigation.

“It's not simply taking landscaping plants used in grade-level landscaping and putting them on the roof,” says Humbarger.

How a landscaping firm can benefit from adding a green-roof installation service depends on the firm. “If they want to research it to the point where they know what they're doing when they start,” suggests Humbarger, “and it's done correctly, green-roof systems can provide enormous publicity for all the parties involved.”

On the flip side, if any segment of the project — such as work from the roof consultant, the designer or the contractor installing parts of the roof — fails, the result is bad publicity for all parties involved. “So it's very important that there's enough research and commitment by whatever company that goes into it that it's done right. Otherwise, everybody's going to suffer.”

“Education and experience are key to understanding the many complexities involved in green-roof technology and architecture,” adds Velazquez. Areas to hit on include “Greenroofs 101” and “Recommended Readings” where specific green-roof-related books are reviewed. Also, “Upcoming Events” is a good place to look for seminars and conferences in several regions.

Workshops are held across the country as well. These workshops are ideal for entry-level seekers of green-roof information, and are conducted by groups like the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, the Earth Pledge Foundation and Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (see “Green Roof Resources” on page 15).


Among the several important educational points to master is structural load capacity. As with Ford's Rouge Center facility, the main reason for not installing an irrigation system was because the structural capacity was not increased. A very light system was therefore necessary.

“Consequently, they didn't want to design an in-depth system that required a lot of weight,” says Humbarger of the Rouge Plant's green roof. “The thicker it is, the heavier it becomes with water. You have to calculate the weight of the saturated material in the load that the roof can handle.”

After reviewing the load capacity of its roof, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) moved forward with plans to install a green roof demonstration project on its headquarters in Washington, D.C. “By putting a green roof on ASLA headquarters, the society is putting its values into action,” ASLA President Patrick Miller states. Installation is slated for autumn 2005.

Providing green-roof services is not for everyone; it's still a specialty niche. But capitalizing on the trend by learning more about the systems, then filling a void in your market with a professional approach, makes for a good vantage point for profits.

Tracy Powell is a freelance author who resides in Charlestown, Ind.


Want to use this article? Click here for options!
© 2020 Penton Media Inc.

Interactive Products

Equipment Blue Book

Used Equipment Valuation Guide

Riding mowers, lawn tractors, snow throwers, golf carts


Grounds Maintenance Jobs

search our jobs database, upload your resume