The art of the living roof — Los Angeles Times

The art of the living roof - Los Angeles Times

Functional and lovely, these eco-friendly canvases are just beginning to spring up around the L.A. area.

Plant a rooftop; change your life. That’s Pamela Berstler’s mission. By converting traditional heat-generating roofs into energy-saving ecosystems where succulents and wildflowers flourish, the West Los Angeles landscape designer hopes to transform the local landscape, one green roof at a time.

"It’s easy to treat this as a fad, or a trend, but this is what our future looks like," Berstler says. Partnered with her husband, Alex Stevens, in Flower to the People, Berstler designs green roofs for residential clients. She believes homeowners should emulate the green building industry and plant eco-friendly rooftops that absorb and filter storm water, cool or insulate their surroundings and put oxygen back into the atmosphere.

"Green roofs are artful, but they should also be part of a water-management system in the landscape," she says. And among its many benefits, an energy-efficient "living roof" can be beautiful to look at.

Planted roofs are widely used in Europe and even in some American cities such as Chicago, which has spent the last decade encouraging commercial and residential homeowners to mitigate high energy costs with green roofs. Pasadena recently included green roofs in its mandatory green building policies for new municipal buildings.

But most residential rooftops here are still sheltered by such traditional materials as tile, shingles and composite sheeting. Homeowners haven’t joined the green roof revolution, in part because of structural logistics and expense, experts say.

"The bottom line is that green roofs can make Los Angeles a much better, more livable city," says Steven Peck, founder and president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a Toronto-based nonprofit membership association for the green roof industry. "But we’re not talking about a technology where you can go to Home Depot and do it yourself."

After reading about green roofs in a home design magazine, Susan Jenkins and Rene Maza of Altadena wanted to convert an ordinary patio roof into a planted garden-in-the-sky. "But it’s not possible for individuals to do it by themselves," says Jenkins, director of exhibition management at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. "We needed both a building contractor and a landscape contractor."

The couple hired Flower to the People to plant their patio roof with sedums and a wildflower seed mix. Before installing hundreds of tiny succulents and sowing flowers such as yarrow, poppy and clarkia, Berstler worked with Doug Kilpatrick of Foothill Construction General Contractor Inc. in La Crescenta to ensure the wood-framed structure could handle a load of wet plants. The contractor reinforced the 15-by-22-foot patio roof so it could support Berstler’s green roof system.

A root barrier and a drainage mat are sandwiched together on top of a one-half-inch layer of pea gravel and waterproof membrane. Metal flashing protects the roof’s framework from moisture. Together this system creates a "tray" in which the succulents are planted.

The art of the living roof - Los Angeles Times

Green roofs require 4 to 6 inches of space for roots to grow, Berstler says. Rather than using soil, the designer prefers a lightweight medium such as compact moss or a custom planting mixture. The system can be hand-watered during dry spells or irrigated with low-flow water spray heads that produce about one-third the misting of a regular spray head.

Succulents are ideal for green roofs because of their low water requirements and heat-loving characteristics.

Whether randomly planted or arranged in a pattern, these hard-working perennials grow quickly during the first year or two, filling in gaps to hide exposed planting medium or moss beneath.

The result, Berstler says, is like a meadow, rather than a container of individual plants.

Without a green roof, Jenkins and Maza would have had to stare at a huge rectangle of black tar paper from their home. Because of their sloping property, Jenkins says, "we can’t actually see most of our yard from the house, so we gain a lot of visual pleasure from having a garden roof. It makes our garden look finished and feel cooler."

"It was a folly-like take on the Norwegian-style timbered architecture of their home," McCrory says. "We wanted the look to be wild and unkempt. It doesn’t look like mowed sod." The thatched-style roof is further enhanced by wind-borne seeds and those dropped by birds using the roof as a suburban habitat, he says.


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