Raising the 'green' roof

By Helen Roberts


We currently have a real shortage of housing in the UK and the estate agency Savills has estimated that there will be a shortfall of 160,000 homes in the next five years unless local authorities act. With this in mind, I started thinking of the building industry and how sustain­­able building design has become increasingly important over the last few decades. Not only does the industry consider the sustainability of the materials themselves, but designs aim to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources and minimize waste during and after the life of the building, while creating a healthy and comfortable environment for the occupants.

Within the field of sustainable building design is the subject of green roofs. This is an area of design that holds great interest to me, as I am a landscape architect with previous training in plant sciences. Green roofs play a pivotal role in urban environments by reducing rainwater runoff, reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling, heat island mitigation, creating valuable wildlife habitats and also making an aesthetically pleasant landscape for people to escape from the urban environment. 

What is a green roof?

Green roof on Chicago City Hall. Photo credit: TonyTheTiger
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
via Wikimedia Commons

A green roof is a platform or roof on which vegetation is grown or wildlife habitats are created. The basic elements include a waterproofing membrane covered with a growing medium and vegetation. The design, ecology and aesthetics of a green roof can vary considerably, however, and can be adapted specifically to suit a particular location or design brief. Plants in containers on a roof top are not considered to be a true green roof.
The term green roof, however, can also be used to describe roofs that incorporate green technology, such as solar thermal collectors or photovoltaic (solar) panels.

The history of green roofs

Green roofs are not a new concept. Dwellings of the Neolithic period, such as the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Orkney, are thought to have had turf roofs. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the Ancient World, were extravagant green roof gardens, thought to be irrigated by about 35,000 litres of water brought in through aqueducts and canals.

The houses at Skara Brae, Orkney were thought to have
had turf roofs. Photo credit: Antony Slegg
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

Turf or sod roofs were common centuries ago in Scandinavia and can still be seen in places like the Faroe Islands. I visited Lund, Sweden recently and saw beautiful turf roofed farmhouses in the museum of cultural history. The turf helped keep dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. However, these structures would most likely have leaked and also would have had the inconvenience of burrowing wildlife!
Modern green roofs didn’t develop until the 1970s in Germany, when legislation was passed to encourage the introduction of green roofs. Unlike the historical turf roofs, modern green roof designs include drainage and root protection measures, as well as lightweight growing media.
The UK is somewhat behind continental Europe in terms of using government policy to implement green roof technology. But things are changing and there has been an increase in the use of green roof technology over the past decade. In fact, Bristol’s development policy (Bristol Development Framework Core Strategy; adopted in June 2011) encourages the incorporation of green roofs as a way of enhancing the biodiversity value of new building developments and views green roofs as an essential asset of the strategic green infrastructure network.Bristol  

Green roofs can be extensive, intensive or semi-intensive

Green roofs vary in ‘intensity’ in terms of the depth of substrate used and the level of maintenance needed, which affects the type of vegetation that can then be grown. A typical green roof will have, on top of the roof itself, a layer of waterproofing, a root barrier, protection/moisture retention matting, a drainage layer, a filter sheet, the growing substrate and then the plants. Green technology, such as solar panels, may also be incorporated into the design of the vegetated roof.
Green roofs are classified as extensive, intensive or semi-intensive in nature. Extensive green roofs are less than 100 mm deep and are relatively low maintenance. Their shallow depth means they are lighter but that they can support fewer vegetation types. This means they generally have lower biodiversity value and limited water holding capacity. Most people will be familiar with sedum matting as a common form of extensive green roof.

Construction layers of a green roof.
Photo credit: thingermejig (flickr.com)
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

Semi intensive green roofs have substrate depths of about 100 mm to 200 mm, require moderate maintenance, can support a greater range of plant species and have the ability for rainwater attenuation.
Intensive green roofs have deeper substrates (over 200 mm) and therefore require more substantial structural support. The deep substrate can sustain more elaborate plantings, including many different tree and shrub species, which offers a more garden-like space for users. Intensive green roofs require more maintenance and complex drainage and irrigation systems, but can offer rainwater attenuation and a greater degree of species biodiversity.
The aim of the green roof will ultimately influence its design. If, for example, the aim is simply to have an insulating effect on the building, a low-maintenance extensive green roof with low-lying vegetation would probably be sufficient. If, however, the aim is to attract and enhance wildlife, an intensive design is likely required to support a diversity of plant species that can provide a variety of structure and microhabitats. I will discuss biodiversity and wildlife green roofs in more detail in my next blog post.


The benefits of green roofs:

Green roofs help improve the urban environment in many ways, from creating a natural space for office workers to enjoy to helping mitigate the urban heat island effect. Here are some of the benefits of green roofs:

Creating a biodiverse space and a relaxing place

Green roofs can increase biodiversity in urban areas where ground level space has been developed and valuable green corridors lost. Sky-high gardens can be important stepping stones for wildlife and can create habitat and forage for a variety of species, which wouldn’t exist with conventional roofs.
These places can also provide a haven for people to visit or to just view and offer a respite from a hard urban setting. 

Green roofs slow down runoff and help reduce flooding

There is a requirement now in the UK (under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010) that new developments mitigate storm water runoff and include appropriate water management systems. An established green roof can significantly reduce the peak flow rates and total volume of water runoff. Water is stored by the plants and substrate and is released back slowly into the atmosphere by evapotranspiration and evaporation. The plants also help filter out pollutants in the rainfall.
Many features of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS), such as permeable surfaces and swales, are not easily incorporated into a hard urban and so green roofs are considered a good solution to reducing storm water runoff. Interestingly, it has been found that in the summer 70-80% of rainfall can be retained in a green roof and in winter 10-35% (due to differences in evapotranspiration in summer and winter).&
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The cool down effect of green roofs

Urban areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas are described as heat islands. The additional heat means more energy is used in summer for cooling (air conditioning and refrigeration), there are more incidents of heat-related illness and mortality and there are implications for air and water quality. Green roofs help improve local air quality and cool the urban environment by reflecting more of the sun’s rays compared with conventional roofs. The plants shade and insulate the underlying roof and have a cooling effect as water is released through evapotranspiration and evaporation – the building equivalent of sweating.

Green roofs reduce energy consumption

The thermal insulation properties of green roofs reduce the need for air conditioning in summer and heating in winter, decreasing associated emissions and dependence on non-renewable resources. 

Green roof allotments

There is increasing interest in the use of green roofs for food production and this ties in closely with the provision of amenity space. There is limited green space that can be used at ground level for food production in urban areas, so the logical step is to go up!. Roof-top allotments reduce food transportation and help increase the supply where the demand exists. For the individual household, it can help reduce food costs and provide many benefits associated with growing your own food. For a community, rooftop gardens can become a centre for social cohesion.
Though there are examples of agri-roofs, mainly in Asia, the use of roofs for food production is relatively unexplored and will provide ‘food for thought’ in the design of future green roofs.

Raise the roof on green roofs

With their many benefits, green roofs are likely to become a vital component of building designs in the future. New developments are imminent in the face of a housing shortage and green roofs offer an opportunity to improve the urban landscape, providing habitat for essential species, such as pollinators, and potentially helping respond to challenges with food security. Green space that is lost on the ground needs to be created up above with the transformation of featureless barren roofs into beautiful diverse green places. 

We’re gardenin’ in the rain

By Helen Roberts


It has been unbelievably wet since the start of 2014 with England experiencing it’s wettest January since records began over 100 years ago. The Somerset levels have suffered dreadfully and huge areas are still underwater and are likely to remain so for weeks or even months to come. From where I live, on the Mendips, I have far-reaching views over to Glastonbury Tor and the Quantocks and the area of levels in between looks like the vast inland sea it once was. In most other areas, the ground is completely saturated and in some places water is bubbling up to the surface.

Flooding in Greylake, Somerset in February, 2014. Photo
courtesy of Live-vibe on Flickr CC

What does waterlogging do to our gardens and what can we do to solve it?


Many plants do not like to be waterlogged because their roots need oxygen as well as water and nutrients. When roots are starved of oxygen they die and these dead roots can then act as a host for fungi such as Phytophthora, a root rot. Shrubs and fruit trees are particularly vulnerable to waterlogging as they cannot put on new roots as quickly as perennials and cannot stand long periods under water. Add freezing conditions with waterlogging and your plants may be in big trouble.
Winter flooding may not be fatal though, as many plants can experience and survive winter flooding for short periods of time. You can give your plants a helping hand if they’re waterlogged by pruning ornamentals right back so that they don’t have to protect so much above ground. You can also remove any dead or dying shoots and take cuttings as a back-up should the plant die. Smaller plants can be transplanted into pots with fresh compost, removing dead roots before transplanting.
Looking after waterlogged lawns is a different matter. If your lawn is squelchy to walk on at the moment, try to stay off it. Walking on it will only aid compaction and make matters worse. Waterlogged lawns can quickly lead to the grass dying and moss, algae, lichens and liverworts taking over. I do not have an issue with these plants in a lawn per se and I am not one to fret over weeds in a lawn either, but if you do want to make things better and improve a waterlogged lawn there are a number of options.

You can try pricking, spiking or slitting the surface of the lawn with powered tools or even a fork. This leaves holes that can be infilled with lawn top dressings or horticultural sand. It is best to get rid of surface water first, if possible, by sweeping it off with a brush into the borders. Otherwise, wait for it to drain naturally. Alternatively, convert your lawn into a water meadow!

Create a partnership with nature


Sometimes struggling against waterlogging in your garden or parts of your garden is a losing battle. It is simply better to accept the natural conditions of your garden and work with what you have. Rethink your palette of plants and cultivate those that favour wet soil. If the ground is permanently wet, consider establishing a bog garden as bog plants can be truly architectural in their habit and are excellent for attracting wildlife.

Some suitable bog species suggested by the RHS website include:
Herbaceous perennials: Bog primulas, Eupatorium maculatum Atropurpureum Group, Darmera peltata,Iris ensata ‘Rose Queen’, Iris laevigata, Ligularia ‘The Rocket’, Lobelia cardinalis, Rodgersia pinnata‘Superba’, Trollius x cultorum ‘Superbus’
Grasses: Spartina pectinata ‘Aureomarginata’, Carex elata ‘Aurea’
Ferns: Athyrium filix-femina, Matteuccia struthiopteris

A sustainable approach to managing flooding

How we manage water and excessive water in our own gardens, particularly in urban areas where there is nowhere to drain excess water, is very relevant at present considering the amount of rainfall we have had over the last couple of months.
Sustainable urban drainage systems or SuDS are approaches of managing surface waters taking into account quantity (flooding), quality (pollution) and amenity issues of water. They ultimately contribute to sustainable development and improve urban design. These systems mimic nature and manage rainfall as close as possible to where it falls aiming to slow water down before it enters watercourses. This is basically done by forming structures and landforms that can store water and allow water to soak into the ground, evaporated from surface water or lost through evapotranspiration. 

The use of SuDS is not by any means a new concept to ecologists, engineers, architects and landscape architects. It has been implemented very successfully worldwide and been effective in its way of managing water but also contributing significantly to the production of some truly innovative and outstanding design as well as creating areas of ecological value.

So how can you manage rainwater on a smaller scale in your own garden?

Nigel Dunnett, Professor of Planting Design and Vegetation Technology, and Director of the Green Roof Centre at the University of Sheffield is an expert in rain gardens and small scale rainwater management features. His research has looked at innovative approaches in planting design and landscaping that serve to store, collect and infiltrate rainwater runoff. Examples include the use of storm water or through flow planters, which are essentially raised, planted beds at the base of buildings that can take runoff water directly from roofs or adjacent areas of hardstanding.
The key to Dunnett’s research is that it can be replicated on a small scale in one’s own garden and can be just as effective in terms of its aesthetic and ecological value, particularly in urban areas.
Other approaches to managing rainwater include reducing runoff from hard surfaces, such as driveways and patios, by using permeable paving that allows water to soak directly into the ground. Roofs on sheds and garages or any external outbuildings in the garden could have green roofs installed. Furthermore, you could use Dunnett’s techniques of creating rain gardens and create a truly sustainable garden that works with nature and not against it.
Nigel Dunnett was a recent speaker with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden Friends’ Lecture series.