Green Roof Myths
Green roofs, living roofs, vegetated roofs, ecoroofs — whatever you want to call them, they are sprouting up everywhere lately, including atop residential homes. And with that increase in popularity comes general assumptions and misconceptions. For example, that green roofs are only for ecobuffs, they're high maintenance and they're experimental and risky. All untrue.
A green roof is simply one that fosters the growth of vegetation. It is made of a waterproofing layer, a root barrier, a drainage system and growing medium for the plants. "Intensive" green roofs, or roof gardens, can be accessible and can include much larger plants and even water features.
An "extensive" green roof, on the other hand, is a thinner, lighter, version that looks more similar to a standard roof. It can be sloped or flat. Often it will be planted with sedum (stonecrop). Many "semi-intensive" green roofs are home to an array of plant species, including native grasses and flowers.
Myth No. 1: Green roofs are a new and experimental part of the green trend.
When do you think the residential green roof in this photo was installed? Five years ago? Ten? Maybe 20? This green roof has been protecting this German residence since the 1940s — more than 70 years ago.
Green roofs have been around for centuries. It’s the execution of them that has become more technical of late, allowing for thinner and lighter roof profiles.
Myth No. 2: A green roof is only for a green building.
Certainly there are many green building certifications that award points for the installation of a green roof. The environmental benefits are undeniable. However, even homes that don't have a specific eco objective can benefit from the aesthetic and economical aspects of having an extended garden space.
Green roofs can save you money, too. In Germany (where green-roof research has the longest history), extensive green roofs are used as an economic alternative to other options. They have been shown to reduce heating and cooling costs, reduce stormwater runoff (and therefore flooding), and provide added commercial space, which in turn increases the market value of a property.
Myth No. 3: Green roofs may look nice, but they can cause structural problems and leakage.
This is perhaps one of the most cited concerns of clients. Let me be clear: A leaky roof is independent of whether it's a green roof or a traditional roof. It has to do with the installation and design specification of the structure. All roofs must have a proper waterproofing membrane, green roofs included.
There is no evidence to suggest that green roofs are more susceptible to leaking. In fact, some studies suggest that the longer life cycle of a green roof is due to the protection of the waterproof membrane from ultraviolet sunlight. The plants and substrate act as a natural barrier to weathering.
A properly designed green roof will also have a root barrier to stop plants from trying to root too deep.
Newly constructed homes must meet the requirements of the designed loads, so as long as your architect and structural engineer are on the same page about your desires for a green roof, there should be no problem for a new home to meet the structural requirements.
For retrofitted green roofs, you have to be a bit careful. Requirements will depend a lot on what part of the country you live in and what kinds of loads your home was originally designed to sustain (snow, wind, rain etc.).
Myth No. 4: Green roofs are difficult and costly to irrigate.
Many people think that a green roof has to be planted with sedum or other succulents because it's impossible or prohibitively expensive to irrigate a green roof. The reality is that all green roofs require irrigation in the beginning while the roots of the plants are establishing themselves (with the exception of pregrown mats made offsite). The reason that water-storing plants are so popular is because they are beautiful and hardy enough to stand up to the tough conditions of a roof.
However, sometimes combining these with other types of vegetation, such as native grasses, can be a good way to introduce more diversity and increase the aesthetic charm of the roof. Intensive roofs, or roof gardens, are the perfect example of this. Some even have bushes and trees.
Myth No. 5: You can just put some dirt on your roof to make your own green roof.
Stop! Don't do it. A well-designed green roof is made of much more than good potting soil. Often it doesn't even include soil, but instead calls for perlite or other porous lightweight materials.
The structure of your home needs to be analyzed to see if it can handle the load of a rain-soaked green roof. The specific climate of your site will need to be considered, and plant selection and drainage systems will need to be designed.
Myth No. 6: A green roof is just too expensive and complicated.
It seems a lot of people are intimidated by green roofs because they don't know where to start or how much it will cost them.
Cost estimates are highly variable, depending on whether you want an inaccessible sedum roof or an accessible roof garden.
The warranties on the building products used in a green roof are similar to those for all of the other building products in a home. They must be installed according to the manufacturer's specifications by a qualified professional.
Every green roof installation should come with a service contract to address annual maintenance. The extent of that maintenance will depend a lot on how you want to use your green roof. The maintenance plan should be part of the initial design and installation, with a two-year and a five-year plan included, or perhaps an even longer plan in certain circumstances.
The life spans of residential green roofs are still largely undocumented, but some professionals say they can be double the lifespan of a traditional roof. The green roofs of Rockefeller Center in New York City, for example, have the same waterproofing membranes that were installed in the 1930s.