Carpets of green have topped dwellings since ancient times. If you believe the legend, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon blanketed an entire palace in exotic greenery. And during the Viking days, sod roofs made of earth were all the rage.
Once a relic of earlier civilizations, living rooftops are blooming once more, albeit with modern technologies like irrigation and drainage systems—eco-friendly alternatives to materials like asphalt or tile.
“You have to have a bit of a green thumb,” said Katy Brahler, who along with husband, Gary, “wanted to go as green as we could,” when they hired Cleveland architect Robert Maschke to renovate their three bedroom cottage near Lake Erie a little over two years ago.
The Brahlers aren’t alone. The green roof market alone grew by 115% last year, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a not-for-profit organization touting the benefits of turf roofing.
And there are many: according to the EPA, green roofs insulate, filter pollution, reduce storm water run-off, and naturally cool the air, reducing what’s known as the “heat island effect.”
To capitalize on the earth-friendly factor, architect Robert Maschke suggested the Brahlers use an insulating eco-roof as well as a green exterior wall covered with layers of soil. Egg carton-like trays of red, green and brown sedum perennials made the lawn look as if it rolled out of the house, up the wall and onto the roof. Though it needs occasional weeding, Brahler says the green roof is her most unique garden.
Vegetated roofs, on the other hand, grow best on flat or slightly sloped roofs that can support the soil and plants. “You can’t just throw plants on top of a Spanish Colonial,” says San Francisco-based architect Jonathan Feldman, or they will look “tacked on.”
Wild strawberries, grasses and poppies grow on the slightly-sloped roof of the modern vacation compound Feldman built into a hillside for his parents in California’s Carmel Valley. The strawberry vines don’t bear edible fruit but help to hold the soil together.
Besides making modern homes feel “more like cozy cave dwellings,” green roofs provide thermal properties that help lower your electrical and heating bills, according to Feldman. Soil and plants also keep the sun off the roof layer itself, making it last longer.
The eco-housing trend is particularly popular in urban settings like San Francisco where outdoor space is limited. On a Pacific Heights townhouse, Feldman included a rooftop lounge area with patio and chairs “so it’s not just the plants that get the view.”
And there’s no need for a hoe. Homeowners can buy system “modules” or trays filled with succulent plants and sedum pre-grown at nurseries, with residential projects starting at $20 per square foot, according to Amber Poncé, a business development manager for Missouri-based LiveRoof. The company, which specializes in modular live roof systems, has supplied more than 3 million square feet of green roof, including around 30% for residential use, in just the last few years.
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