Thursday, March 27, 2008

Green Roof in a Box?

No it's not the new SNL Digital Short with JT, but a rant about the commercialization of green rooftops. I usually don't mince words about 'packaged' vegetated systems and my disdain for them as a one-size-fits-all solution. It's not that I don't think there's value in the marketplace for an easier to implement solution. I tend to find that these systems lack the regional and site-specific qualities that make them successful in their search for Ikea-like packability. Some thoughts:

Thinking about it in terms of prefab, a good number of prefab houses come with the prefab green roof addition. The miniHome DUO is an example (amongst many) that has this feature, and it's represented in that sort of boxed, add-on, generic sort of way that is typical of modern prefab:

:: image via Jetson Green

A new product seen a few places recently jumped out at me for this very reason, mostly due to the simple commodification aspect, is Urban Roof Gardens, a UK company that literally is selling 'A Green Roof in a Box' for 12 square meters of vegetated rooftop for £590.00 (that's about $1,185 for 129 sf for ya'll on the non-metric part of the world) - which is pretty competitive in terms of pricing at less than $10/s.f. Although I'm always wary of a product that only offers you one grainy glimpse of the system.

:: image via Urban Roof Gardens

From the website: "...all you need for an instant green roof delivered direct to your door! Easy to install and low maintenance, your environmentally friendly green roof will provide recreational space for you and a habitat for wildlife. Your pack comes complete with a 4 component system ready for you to lay down: a RoofMat (comprising a root barrier and waterproof membrane), a GreenMat (for insulation, water retention and feeding), a GroLayer (special growth medium) and finally the SedumSpread (fasting rooting macerated sedum plants). We can supply in any quantity, and we're also happy to come and fit it - email us for a quote. Available NOW!"

Pretty much every company has some form or other of pre-packaged system, including the major big hitters in the roofing world. The names are pretty amusing as well, and deserves a more intensive posting to look at the variations. A few for some fodder and discussion: Garden Roof (Hydrotech), Sopranature (Soprema), Nature Roof (Corus), Eco-Roof (WP Hickman), Living Roofs, and Elevated Landscape Technologies to name a few.

A ready to install variation is from Xero Flor America, who is a grower and supplier of pregrown vegetated mats. Another company and product that deserves more attention (there are a couple of local Portland examples I'd like to see and profile). The vegetated mats were used in the US on the ground-breaking Ford Rouge Plant, where it was used to immediately cover literally acres of rooftop for instant coverage. Again price is an issue, but when you factor in instantaneous cover and reduced maintenance, it starts to make a lot of sense.

:: image via Xero Flor America

The green roof tray systems definitely come with a 'box' mentality. These include the popular GreenGrid, Green Roof Blocks, and a newer Portland company AVRS. The box idea is quite popular, and the advertising does reinforce the easy installation and flexibility of moving or removing if there are problems or changes. One drawback is the additional cost, which may or may not be worth it depending on the configuration of the rooftop.

:: image via

Another variation is 'Green Roof in a Bag' with a company called GreenPaks which offer some of the benefits with less material (and I'm guessing less cost).

:: image via GreenPaks

A rooftop agriculture version of the 'box' comes via City Farmer News, and a recent post on Earthbox. Advertised as 'Homegrown Vegetables Without A Garden', it definitely talks a good game: "Our maintenance-free, award-winning, high-tech growing system controls soil conditions, eliminates guesswork and more than doubles the yield of a conventional garden-with less fertilizer, less water and virtually no effort."

:: image via City Farmer News

:: Organic Ready to Grow Kit - image via Earthbox

A company I really admire that provides a measure of packaging with some customization is innovator Charlie Miller from Roofscapes, and the offerings of custom designed 'systems' such as the Ultralite Plaza and Roofrug which is advertised as the 'Industries Best Value' which includes install and two full years of maintenance. The regionalism and semi-commodification is handled through the Roofscapes Network, which has local companies that are representative installers for a particular geographic region.

:: image via Roofscapes

It is healthy and good for a product or system to evolve from initial customization to commodification, but in the case of green roofs, I wonder if perhaps the concept is self-defeating. The ways in which this would make real market sense is that the products were able to be mass-produced with a lower price point. Most of these packaged systems tend to be priced at least the same or typically higher than a custom system.

A less product oriented, and perhaps more flexible solution comes via RoofBloom, a Minnesota based resource with a focus on garage-roof greening. A collaborative partnership between a number of groups, including the Minnesota Green Roofs Council, which is one of those local groups based on a more regional approach to green roofing that I think is the key to success.

The RoofBloom resource is a document entitled 'Green Your Garage, Volume One' which does a good job of not only giving the basics but also setting the local context for watershed protection. Also, it explains some of the scale issues, looking at not just one garage but the overall potential. From GYG: "Garages and other outbuildings do represent a significant land use in urban areas. As an example, fifty thousand two-car garages, each with a 480-square foot roof, represent 24 million square feet of impermeable surface. That's 550 acres of green space."

:: image via RoofBloom

Volume Two hints at some 'systems' that would work, and it would be interesting to see how adaptable they are to particular site and building specifics. In essence, a group in every city and region is somewhat necessary to facilitate and translate all of the myriad information in the universe into what will work in a particular locale or climate. I'd call that group green roof designers and landscape architects... preferably ones with a track record of success. By maybe I'm biased...

In summary, the old adage that all sustainability is local holds true - and perhaps is even more appropriate when talking about sustainable landscapes. So perhaps all green roof solutions are local as well. And while pre-packed systems are valuable and applicable to a number of conditions, more often than not, they don't come neatly flat-packed in a box. Sorry IKEA.


  1. Thanks for this thorough preview....been wanting a "green roof in a box" to solve all my problems of my remodel(one less thing to do). I assumed I could find something that was for my zone and then choose, the butterfly mix, the succulents, simple and green, native wildflowers...etc. I didn't realize they all roughly are the same price as custom or from box. Being in No. Cal and the Academy of Science's bldg. nearby, one would think this would be an easy feat, not yet. I got a lot of good ideas, thank you!


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