Covering Your Green Assets

assets, Bay Area, San Francisco, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Facebook, Greensulate, Amy Norquist, green roof


Green roofs trending to new heights.


By Amy Norquist

[dropcap]G[/dropcap]reen building seems to be making its way (thankfully) into every new development and plan in the Bay Area with innovative solutions in energy management, materials, design, windows and more. But green roofs historically have been seen as an interesting element of green infrastructure—more of a cherry on top—with some of the most visible green roofs historically being viewed as a dramatic design element, bordering on esoteric. This, however, is changing.

Green roofs in the Bay Area are growing (pardon the pun) and overall adoption is accelerating. The California Academy of Sciences green roof in San Francisco is a green roof darling, has become an oft-referenced iconic view shed. It is valuable for the green roof industry since it is highly visible and comes with helpful educational placards, explaining the many benefits of green roofs. More recently, Facebook’s new campus unveiled this spring with its 9 acre green roof has also captured the imagination of many, and raised awareness of the tremendous benefits of green roofs on employee productivity, the environment and a building’s bottom line.

[quote]Though we already intuitively know that seeing or accessing nature during our work day makes us healthier, happier and more productive people, we now have quantifiable evidence.[/quote]

As the number of green roofs expands across the Bay Area (San Francisco currently has nearly 50 in the pipeline, and the city is eager to support more), the role of green roofs is changing. The Academy roof, which opened in 2008, is not exactly replicable or accessible to the average residential or commercial client. (Few projects will include Renzo Piano and few will include a dramatic undulating design that models the seven hills of San Francisco.) Similarly, few Bay Area companies can afford a Frank Gehry-designed 9 acre park on their rooftop, as Facebook did. However, over the past few years, green roofs have indeed moved from the esoteric to the mainstream, with increased adoption reflected in an overall projected green roof market size growing by $2 billion in the next 2 years—the bulk coming from the US—to $7.7 billion by 2017. Commercial buildings have been identified as a major piece of this market growth.

The visible trends for green infrastructure (which include both green roofs and green walls) sailed over the Atlantic to the east coast, and are now hitting the west coast, and include green roof projects on a much larger scale in commercial construction and retrofitting. (We do everything bigger in the U.S., don’t we?) And it’s worth noting that in Europe, where green roofs sprouted, there are 4 countries that now mandate green roofs on all new construction and roof membrane replacement over 5,000 square feet. France is the latest to put this requirement on the books, doing so in late March of this year.

Though we already intuitively know that seeing or accessing nature during our work day makes us healthier, happier and more productive people, we now have quantifiable evidence. A study released last month from the University of Melbourne showed that employee productivity increases significantly when employees looked out onto a green, living roof vs. a concrete roof. Facebook’s 9 acre green roof is shown to mirror their workplace culture, aiming to create a space where everyone can easily recharge with nature, connect with each other and thrive.

There are a number of timely factors that are driving this current growth that span across regulatory, environmental, economic and aesthetic arenas.

1. Regulatory: Incentives and regulations supporting green roofs have skyrocketed. In 2007 there were 3 such incentives, regulations, or tax rebates in the U.S. Today that number exceeds 40, and more are coming online every month. Many of these incentives come in the form of stormwater management or energy policy, but many also come in the form of building incentives and fast track permitting. Companies like Restoration Hardware are incorporating park space on their roofs to receive FAR bonuses.

2. Environmental: Green roofs absorb and store large amounts of heat, which reduces temperature fluctuations and reduces Urban Heat Island and reduces ground level ozone. Researchers estimate that a 1,000-square foot green roof can remove about 40 pounds of particulate pollution from the air in a year, while also producing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. It’s estimated that there is a half ton less of C02 emitted every year for every 1,000 square feet of green roofs installed. Stormwater runoff is reduced by as much as 90 percent, and oh by the way, green roofs use 7 percent of the water needed for a traditional lawn, and in many cases with drought resistant plants, a green roof does not use any additional water. In addition, green roofs also create biodiversity and habitats for animals, reduce noise and save energy.

3. Economic: It’s been proven that green roofs enhance building value, even when there is no direct roof interaction with building occupants. A recent Natural Resource Defense Council study focused on the commercial value of green points to a 16 percent increase in lease rates and higher occupancy when green roofs are included in design. Green roofs decrease HVAC footprints, AC loads and vertical heat gain through improved insulation and cooling effects. The cooling effect also increases efficiency of solar panels, when placed on green roofs. Roof life is doubled or tripled, thus reducing the need for roof replacement 15 years after installation, and savings hundreds and thousands of dollars. And when the building is designed for a green roof that is view accessible or use, the economic benefits climb even higher, and move from nice-to-have to want/need-to-have.

In addition, there is increasing use of PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) funds for this energy saving strategy, which allow building owners to fund the upfront investment through a PACE loan, and which is attached to the property tax bill and paid back over a period up to 20 years.

4. Aesthetic: The aesthetic driver of green roofs is clear and simple. People like green space and will pay more to have visual or real access. Large companies like Facebook and Google are including biomimicry and biophilia in their campus design. These strategies improve the health and well being of employees and of the building itself. It turns out that visual connection with nature is quite valuable. Biophilic design reduces stress, enhances creativity and clarity of thought, improves our well-being and expedites healing. As the world population continues to urbanize, these qualities are ever more important.

Cost analysis has proven that including green roofs in new and existing building design is a sound decision and a profitable long-term investment. As we see an increased number of highly visible green roofs throughout the bay area, we will not only have happier, more productive employees and tenants, but also more importantly, we can begin to offset the impact of climate change one roof at a time.

Photography by Sargent Photography

Amy Norquist is founder and CEO of Greensulate. Greensulate is based in New York City and has installed hundreds of thousands of square feet of green roofs since it was founded in 2007. Amy can be reached at anorquist /at/

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