Dear EarthTalk: I was intrigued to hear that there were a number of ways one could modify or construct a roof on a house or office facility that would provide great environmental benefit. Can you enlighten?
-- Bill Teague, Menlo Park, CA

Most buildings are designed to shed rain, and as such are built with hard, impenetrable roofing surfaces. As a result, rainwater bounces off and collects as runoff, picking up impurities—including infectious bacteria from animal waste as well as harmful pesticides and fertilizers—on the way to municipal storm sewers, which in turn eventually empty out into local bodies of water.

Minimizing this run-off means that more impurities will remain in local soils where they can be broken down more easily into their constituent elements than if they are concentrated downstream. In order to achieve this goal, landscape architects have developed so-called “green roofs,” which utilize living plant matter and soil on top of a building in order to absorb, collect and reuse rainwater while preventing run-off. Many buildings employing green roofs are able to find abundant uses for the water they collect, from watering exterior plantings at ground level to flushing toilets inside.

According to Steven Peck of the Toronto-based non-profit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, green roofs can play an important role in maintaining ecological integrity within otherwise paved over areas. “The roofscapes of our cities are the last urban frontier—from 15 percent to 35 percent of the total land area—and the green roof industry can turn these wasted spaces into a force for cleaner air, cleaner water, energy savings, cooling, beauty and recreation,” he says. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages the creation of green roofs for mitigating the urban “heat island effect,” whereby temperatures in crowded cities can soar some 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in less developed areas nearby. Other benefits, says the EPA, include: providing amenity space for tenants (in effect replacing a yard or patio); reducing building heating and cooling costs due to the buffering effect of the plant matter and soil; filtering pollutants like carbon dioxide out of the air and heavy metals out of rainwater; and increasing bird habitat in otherwise built-up areas.

Beyond going all out to build a “living” green roof, certain inorganic materials can also make an existing roof greener. The non-profit Cool Roof Rating Council (CRRC), for instance, suggests roofing surfaces that reflect the sun’s heat so as to reduce the urban heat island effect while improving residential energy efficiency. According to the group, “a cool roof reflects and emits the sun’s heat back to the sky.” Builders can check out CRRC’s website for a database of information on the radiative properties of various roofing surfaces so as to make the smartest choice for clients and the environment.

Another quality that makes certain roofs greener than others is how long they last. Metal roofs are known to be relatively maintenance free and last longer than shingles in most situations. Slate roofs also have an excellent reputation for lasting long, although getting work done on them can be expensive when they do need repairs. The Slate Roofing Contractors Association reports that sea green slates can last anywhere from one to two centuries, depending on where the slate is quarried and how well it’s eventually installed.

CONTACTS: Green Roofs for Healthy Cities; CRRC

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