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Green Roofs: An Aesthetic Upgrade That Can Lower Costs

From the stunning entrance within Boston’s Back Bay, the Four Seasons Hotel Boston seems like just another luxury hotel. But there’s a lot more to this lavish high-rise than meets the eye. Visible from more than 50 rooms in the hotel — and from other high-rises throughout the city — is a lush, vegetative roof that provides aesthetic appeal and fresh vegetables for the hotel’s restaurant.

The Four Seasons Hotel Boston is one of many facilities in the United States with vegetative roofs. More than 5.6 million square feet of green roofs were installed in North America in 2012, according to the Annual Green Roof Industry Survey.

With endless design possibilities, complex installations and long-term maintenance requirements, specifying a green roof for your facility can be a complex decision.  Learn the benefits of a green roof and how to effectively install one on your facility.

Understand the Benefits of Going Green

The Environmental Protection Agency cites key benefits to green roofing, including reductions in energy use, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as improvements to human health and comfort. But facility managers also seek to improve a facility’s insulation and reduce storm water runoff, in addition to other aims.

“The investment is that water proofing won’t have to be replaced in 15 or 20 years,” says Geoff Arthur, a former project manager at Apex Green Roofs, Inc., a Somerville, Mass.-based design, build and maintenance firm that specializes in the green roof industry. “Green roofs will double the lifespan of your roof — that’s the ROI for facilities.” According to the Apex Green Roofs website, green roof installations can improve insulation and reduce heat flow as much as 90 percent in a warm climate and 30 percent in cold climates.

Many architects and builders are interested in installing green roofs to create more usable space, Arthur says. “Budgets are tight, so the prospect of increasing a facility’s value is often more attractive than the environmental and sustainable features,” he says.

Define Your Facility Needs

If you’re interested in creating a green roof, it’s important to develop project expectations before hiring a roofing contractor. Clearly define your objectives and goals to ensure your green roof is designed and installed with an established ongoing maintenance program, suggests Steve Koneval, executive vice president of Roth Brothers, Inc., a Sodexo Company that provides building services and construction nationally from its Youngstown, Ohio-headquarters.

Koneval suggests using the following three questions to help establish the goals of the installation:

  • Do you want to reduce storm water run-off? If so, the type of vegetation as well as the layout of the system can achieve this goal.
  • Do you want to reduce the urban heat island effect? Having vegetation on the roof reduces the effects of conventional black rooftops that absorb and then re-radiate light from the sun as heat.
  • Are aesthetics a priority? If so, then budget for benches, walkways and decorative lights. In addition, various types of vegetation can add architectural appeal.

Use the Right Materials

Just like any other job in your facility, it’s important to know the specific materials you will use. “Make sure you don’t structurally overload your building,” Koneval says. “Do your homework upfront to get materials that are easy to get in your geographic region, require minimal maintenance and are cost-effective.”

If your facility’s roof can support the extra weight of a green roof, Arthur breaks down the build process in four steps:

1. Get a standard waterproofing element. You’ll need a membrane to prevent leaks.

2. Add a drainage layer to drain excess water from a storm or oversaturation.

3. Apply engineered growth medium. The custom-blended rocky soil can contain perlite or specially treated shale. It is professionally blended to hold a certain amount of water, making it easier to trap vegetation and keep plants healthy. It also gauges the maximum amount of weight the roof can hold at saturation.

4. Add plants and vegetation. Consider the types of plants you want to incorporate in the roof, including planters, seeding, flowers, vegetables, features, etc.

Hire the Right Contractor

It’s important for any facility manager to find the right contractor, especially when taking bids. “Relationship building starts at the budget phase,” Arthur says.  “Make sure you are getting responsible quotes, good estimates and any available LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] credits from contractors with professional affiliation, a portfolio and lots of experience.”

Don’t be afraid to bring in contractors and designers at the initial brainstorming session before the project takes off. “The more opinions and background you get into the project early,” Arthur says, “the more responsible you’re going to be with your budget by avoiding surprises and change orders.”


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