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Will green roofs be the next hot trend?

If the term "green roof" evokes an image of a few potted plants arranged tastefully on the top of a building, then the time seems ripe to rethink that definition. Green roofs may be the next hot trend to cool down the urban landscape and lower the cost of controlling temperatures in the average suburban home.

Green roofs are generally categorized by one of two forms. Extensive green roofs, also known as eco-roofs or low-profile roofs, are made with a few thin layers of soil, are lightweight, relatively less expensive, and require very little maintenance. Extensive green roofs are the correct choice, the experts say, when the primary desire is for an ecological cover with limited human access.

Intensive or high-profile green roofs, on the other hand, look like traditional roof gardens because a much wider variety of plant material is usually included. They have soil depths ranging from 8 to 12 inches, with growth that can extend upward of 15 feet. They can include such architectural features as waterfalls, ponds and gazebos. Their construction and maintenance is much more costly.

Green roofs 

New to the U.S.
Tristan Roberts, an executive with BuildingGreen in Brattleboro, Vt., says that while interest in green roofs within the U.S. has only taken root in the past decade, green roofs as a phenomenon have a long history.

"They go back for hundreds, if not thousands, of years," he says, "as sod houses in this country and as living roofs in Europe. The modern equivalent has been around for quite a few decades and is much more prevalent in Europe, particularly Germany."

BuildingGreen, which bills itself as an independent operation dedicated to distributing information to building-industry professionals and policymakers, sees green roofs as one way to improve the environmental performance and reduce the adverse impacts of traditional buildings.

Bill Retzlaff, chair of biological sciences at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and coordinator of the research cooperative Green Roof Environmental Evaluation Network, or G.R.E.E.N., says the green-roof industry in the U.S. is very new. "While Europeans have been doing them for a long time, our climate is different, so there's not much useful data on their performance here."

The G.R.E.E.N. cooperative was established two years ago to evaluate green-roof technology in the Midwest, says Retzlaff. In addition to the university, members include several commercial suppliers and, an international resource and online information portal for the green-roof industry.

"Our longest-running project has been on the ground since September 2005," says Retzlaff. "We now have seven specific green-roof projects at our field site. We're evaluating storm-water runoff and temperatures, comparing those results with the results we get with a flat membrane roof."

While green roofs don't necessarily require a lot of care, it's a misconception to suppose that they will just take care of themselves. G.R.E.E.N. researchers are working with systems that don't require a lot of maintenance, but there's no such thing as a no-maintenance green roof.

"You must water them for the first 10 weeks or so," Retzlaff says. "They have to get established, just like any other garden. And at minimum, you need to add some plants, fertilize and weed a couple of times a year."

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