Green Roofs Offer Sky-High Possibilities

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Green Roofs Offer Sky-High Possibilities

Imagine how many plants growers could sell if city governments awarded U.S. businesses $5 for every square foot of garden space they planted. Imagine if the incentive trickled down to the homeowner level, too.

City governments are, of course, unlikely to present such incentives for every garden installation within their limits, but what if they took a more active role in promoting the installation of green roofs? Portland, Ore., is already offering a $5-per-square-foot incentive to property owners and developers through 2013 to add more “ecoroofs,” which cost between $5 and $20 per square foot according to the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.

Cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. have been green roof leaders over the last decade, as well, while Austin, New York City and Philadelphia are becoming more serious about incorporating green roofs into their culture.

No, the United States isn’t greening as many acres of roofs as green roof superpower Germany and other European countries, but growers here are finding opportunities to make green roof production a part of their businesses. Perhaps it’s time your greenhouse operation considered making green roofs a part of yours.

Becoming A Believer

One grower who’s already led his business into the green roof market is Mike Edelbach, the operations manager at Twixwood Nursery based in Berrien Springs, Mich. Twixwood’s customers began asking for plugs it could use for built-in-place green roof systems about 10 years ago. As Edelbach recalls, there were only a few companies offering green roof tray systems at the time, and the ones providing the trays were selling them for incredible amounts of money.

Still, Edelbach saw a problem with green roof trays back then: The majority of the plugs, mainly sedums, either died or had to be replanted multiple times. It was because of this problem, though, that Edelbach saw an opportunity for Twixwood.

“We started doing research on trays and how to do this in about 2006,” he says. “We tried some different designs. We worked with different manufacturers to come up with a tray that would do what we hoped it would do. We wanted a tray that allowed plants to look good the day they arrive and keeps the plants looking good.”

Twixwood found a design it believed in by 2008, when Eco-Roofs was formed as a sister company that grows and delivers green roof trays to job sites across the United States. Eco-Roofs primarily does business with landscape contractors throughout the Midwest, but Edelbach has found interest in areas outside his region too.

“We actually have sold projects to California,” he says. “It’s more national than you might think.”

One thing Eco-Roofs does not do is install its tray system. There are growers who do install, Edelbach says, but Eco-Roofs does not want to be in direct competition with its customers. So rather than directly install, Eco-Roofs will lend an expert to job sites to answer questions, verify all plant material is on hand and ensure a seamless installation.

Tapping Into Homeowners

Green roofs, to this point, are widely considered projects for commercial or industrial businesses, but what about projects for the homeowner? Considering the number of homes with flat roofs, garages and sheds, is there potential to tap into the homeowner market and sell even more product?

According to Carlos Elias, the propagation manager at Altman Plants based in Vista, Calif., there is potential at the homeowner level. Altman is producing sedums in coco mats that make sense for homeowners. Altman is also selling 17 by 17-inch mats in “mud flats” at Home Depot for homeowners to purchase.

“For the consumer, it is a little bit expensive,” Elias says. “We have a range of prices per square foot depending on volume that people are going to purchase.”

Both Altman and Armstrong Growers, another California grower, are also looking into tray-style vertical walls. The Herb Xchange, a concept Scott Hutcheon developed that involves proprietary living-wall panels of herbs, is a program Armstrong is exploring. The initial concept is to have consumers buy pre-grown panels of herbs at garden centers, grow them and return a month or so later for fresh herbs.

Yet another grower, Matterhorn Nursery of Spring Valley, N.Y., has grown and sold green roofs for garden sheds and doghouses. So it seems the possibilities for growers are endless. Now, it’s just a matter of having a little imagination and reaching out to potential customers.

“The market is going to grow,” says Robert Berghage, an associate professor of horticulture at Penn State University. “People are interested in greening areas and biodiversity.”

For Eco-Roofs, business has been steady over the last couple years. Edelbach estimates Eco-Roofs issued fewer quotes in 2010 than it did the year before, but he believes the company installed as much material last year as it did in 2009. Orders are simply coming in later.

“People are used to ordering whatever supplies they need last minute,” Edelbach says. “They have to consider that it takes 12 to 14 weeks to get these plants to the quality they need to be.”

As challenging as meeting the increasing number of late orders is, Edelbach is thrilled to be involved in the green roof industry.

“If anything, we kick ourselves because we didn’t jump into it faster,” he says. “We were spending a couple years trying to determine whether it’s a fad to stay or whether this was all going to go away. I don’t see it going away at all.”

Market Drivers

David MacKenzie, the owner of a wholesale groundcover nursery called Hortech in Spring Lake, Mich., doesn’t see green roofs going away anytime soon, either. MacKenzie founded LiveRoof, a company that developed a hybrid system incorporating aspects of both the tray and build-in-place systems, in 2006.

Today, 22 growers are LiveRoof licensees who are responsible for production and local sales and marketing of the product. MacKenzie, however, is looking to add more growers to his network because there are pockets of the country asking for material to which he can’t currently provide it.

“We have good coverage in the Midwest and the East Coast, but we need a grower in the South, ideally near Atlanta,” he says. “We could use a grower in South Florida, and other opportunities may be in Alabama, Arizona, Maine and Alaska. We’ve been a little bit surprised finding growers hasn’t been easier because this is a good opportunity for a grower.”

The upside for growers is that the green roof opportunity isn’t driven by a single factor that could fade overnight. Property owners and developers are driven by a number of factors, many of which result in down-the-line cost savings. Some owners and developers are even installing green roofs as a form of advertising by making signs with plants, while others are turning to green roofs because they believe installing one is the right thing to do for the environment.

“As many clients as we have, there are probably that many perspectives and motivators on why our customers are installing a green roof,” MacKenzie says. “There are companies that have done green roofs as an endorsement of their society correctness or environmental focus. If you have a green roof, it acts as a billboard that says we have a commitment to the environment.”

There are also cases like the city of Portland, which requires commercial and industrial property owners to manage stormwater and gives owners options like rain gardens and flow-through planters with which they can manage it. Green roofs are also an option, and a $5-per-square-foot incentive is available to all property owners except the city itself.

“What we’re trying to do for property owners is not only show them the environmental benefits, but that there are direct benefits to the building owner,” says Matt Burlin, outreach coordinator for Portland’s Sustainable Stormwater Management program. “The roof life is extended twice as long in many cases because the waterproof membrane is protected by the plants and soil.”

Energy conservation is another cost-savings benefit the green roof industry is promoting. Improved air quality and water detoxification are among the other highly touted benefits.

“The potential of green roofs is astronomical,” says Robert Berghage, an associate professor of horticulture who’s played a leading role at the Penn State Center for Green Roof Research. “Whether we ever reach that potential is an interesting question. It’s a market that’s very much in its infancy but may change as the pressures continue to mount on municipalities and urban areas to clean up their acts.”

Trial & Error

Green roof production isn’t for all growers, of course, and it’s unlikely green roofs will become your entire business if you pursue green roof production. Instead, growers should approach green roofs as a niche they can incorporate into their existing perennial and shrub businesses.

The current green roof market is particularly heavy in sedums, so any grower producing them should certainly give serious consideration to green roofs. But it’s also because green roofs are sedum heavy that a number of growers are shying away. Fortunately, green roof leaders realize the industry will only grow at a significant rate if other perennials and shrubs are incorporated into tray and built-in-place systems.

“Right now when you look at a tray system it’s primarily sedums in those trays,” Edelbach says. “But we’ve done some work on condominiums, for example, where you can walk out onto the roof on the upper floor and walk into a park-like setting. Sedums are certainly cool and they’re cooler than a black roof, but perennials would add something to that roof.”

A number of growers have also expressed interest to MacKenzie in growing different plants in their LiveRoof system. Growers will ask MacKenzie which plants they should be growing. The answer, he says, isn’t something he can necessarily offer them.

“We don’t know,” he says. “But we know how you can figure that out: Go to your local botanical garden and see what they’re growing in terms of garden plants in your area. In some cases, we may have to encourage somebody to develop an affiliation with a horticulturist in another country. Look for plants that grow on rocks and in thin soil.”

Once you’ve established plants you can grow in trays, acquire the seed or plugs and test grow them. Trialing, MacKenzie says, is a key to furthering the green roof industry. Green roofs are new territory for every grower involved, and progression in many cases requires growers to be pioneers.

“There are growers who just don’t embrace the richness of the palette of plants they could be growing,” MacKenzie says. “In many cases, nobody has done it. You have to do the research and figure these things out. It’s not impossible.”

Edelbach agrees trialing different plants is important. His Eco-Roofs company, after all, spent about two years fine-tuning its system before taking it to market.

“There are definitely a few more hurdles to overcome,” he says. “One is continuing to make sure any of us who are doing these green roofs is doing them in a quality way and not just slapping plug and sedum out there. We as an industry have to make sure we’re doing this for all the right reasons and make sure the roofs we’re doing now are continuing to look good.”

Kevin Yanik is the former managing editor of Greenhouse Grower.
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