Green Roofs Take Root Green Building and Design

Green Roofs Take Root Green Building and Design

Celebrating its tenth year by returning to an urban center known for its planted rooftops, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities will show Chicago—and the world—why planted roofs are one species of green infrastructure we should let run rampant.

Our desire to connect with nature by bringing plants in contact with buildings goes back to ancient times, times when we had things like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Even early settlers used native material to construct theirs shelter when they built the sod roofs on the prairie. In other words, green roofs aren’t new. Yet since environmental consultant Steven Peck founded Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (GRHC) ten years ago, they’ve become a valuable  tool of green infrastructure—and a far more common sight. Jeffrey Bruce, FASLA, president of his own Kansas City-based landscape architecture firm and chairman for Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, thinks he knows why.

Celebrity chef Rick Bayless is committed to sustainable food in the city. He uses the rooftop garden above XOCO, his LEED Gold-certified eatery, to supply local, organic produce to his three restaurants below.

“This acceptance of green-roof technology is due to the integration of the roofing manufacturers and landscape architects, which have been working together to advance the industry,” Bruce says. “The science of constructing green roofs to make them functional and better protect the waterproofing integrity of the structures is a key to the public acceptance of the technology.”

Today’s architects and builders have at their fingertips systems for almost any application, from modular tray systems to custom design-build solutions to green walls and living façades. “One interesting industry trend is the tremendous variety of local and native plant ecologies now available for use,” Bruce says. “The industry is no longer confined [to] sedum plants. The native plant ecologies are now climbing the walls to reside on the roof.”

Greens roofs, and green infrastructure in general, have great public benefits over traditional grey infrastructure. No traditional storm-water solution can reduce urban heat island effect, increase biodiversity, strip pollutants from the air, reduce the cost of heating and cooling our buildings, be used as recreation, increase a roofing membrane’s life, and treat and reduce storm-water runoff. These myriad benefits are several reasons green roofs are incentivized in many cities.

It’s been a highly productive decade for GRHC, and its accomplishments are transformational and varied. From advocating for and implementing green-roof policies in dozens of cities to the development and formation of Green Roof Professional Accreditation—which has resulted in more than 500 qualified professionals around the nation—to the establishment of fire, wind, soil, and root-barrier standards, the association has educated tens of thousands through its workshops and conferences. “In an industry that started without a collective focus, GRHC has become the epicenter of the science and emerging technology while providing a forum for dialogue and debate,” Bruce explains. A major venue for that forum is the organization’s annual CitiesAlive conference, an event to which Bruce says he looks forward each year because of the attendees’ diversity and vitality.

“Scientists, inventors, manufacturers, installers, designers, policy makers—the meeting crosses the entire industry,” he says. “Unlike many conferences, there is a creative energy that makes you feel like you are part of a rapidly advancing industry. New ideas and synergies flow from each educational session. The sidebar discussions and professional interaction in the hall brings an added value, which is hard to find anywhere. Last year, Philadelphia was an exceptional experience, and I can only imagine the celebration planned for the 10-year anniversary in Chicago.”

GRHC has been entrepreneurial in the development of green-roof systems and high-performance landscape technologies. Much of the academic research on green roofs was supported and funded by GRHC and has defined the foundation of performance metrics. The critical nature of placing soils and plants on buildings in narrow profiles was a challenge GRHC embraced. “Green roofs are easily the most technical of the green infrastructure tools, and GRHC has provided the technical support to make green roofs reliable and commonplace in public policy,” Bruce says. “Some of the current GRHC projects, such as the green roof-rating system and the integrated water-management seminars, will continue to advance the green industry for decades.”

Bruce owns a landscape architecture firm that focuses on green technologies and works with “the nation’s leading architecture and landscape architecture firms,” he says. He became involved with GRHC when he gave a presentation in 2004. Since then, he has chaired or co-chaired a number of its educational workshops, which led to him chairing the accreditation program. In 2009, he was appointed to the board of directors and chairman. He says of the journey, “It has been such an exciting privilege and honor to be involved in this critical phase of development of the association.”


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