Magazine article Sunset

Eaves of Grass: From the Northwest to Nevada to California, Homeowners Are Discovering the Beauty and Efficiency of the Green, "Living" Roof

Magazine article Sunset

Eaves of Grass: From the Northwest to Nevada to California, Homeowners Are Discovering the Beauty and Efficiency of the Green, "Living" Roof

Article excerpt

AT FIRST, Suzanne Johnson was skeptical of putting a "living" roof on part of her new house in the hills near Gardnerville, Nevada. But she wanted a home that blended into the surrounding alpine meadows of the Sierra Nevada, and she liked the idea of catching a glimpse of native grasses from the windows of her upper-level home office. A retired Intel executive who volunteers on behalf of marine-mammal conservation and sustainable energy, she was committed to building an eco-friendly home with her architects, David Arkin and Anni Tilt, of Berkeley-based Arkin Tilt.

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Now, after living three winters in her solar-powered 3,400-square-foot home, "I'm a convert," Johnson says. The green roof, which tops her garage and guest wing, is richly textured. Native poppies, fescues, and saltgrass, among others, dance in the breeze, and the added insulation value keeps her heating costs low. Deer have even enjoyed browsing her roof.

Johnson, whose home won a Sunset Western Home Award last year, is hardly alone in discovering the unexpected delights of living with a planted roof. Ford Motor Company has one, and so do the new Ballard Branch of the Seattle Public Library and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center in Salt Lake City. Much more technologically advanced than in the pioneer days of dank sod--as well as the brief sod revival of the '70s--today's roofs feature leakproof membranes, low-weight soils, and carefully researched mixes of hardy, colorful plants. Corporations and civic entities such as Gap Inc., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and British Columbia's Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre have embraced the green-roof idea and are helping drive the technology.

When Johnette Orpinela added a small guesthouse/music studio to her property just outside of Portland, she was wary of the planned metal roof. The view from the main house "used to be trees full of squirrels, and now it was going to be a roof," she said. So she switched to plants. After two seasons, the steep, sedum-carpeted roof is now attracting squirrels and birds. "The colors are always changing," says Orpinela, whose rooftop garden includes a variety of succulents that change from red to green at different times of the year.

She and her architect, Erez Russo, were able to tap into local expertise and enthusiasm, even attracting volunteers to recommend plants and help install the roof. "It takes a certain type of client," Russo says, "one who's willing to do a little weeding and watering the first couple of years, and one who's willing to pay more up front." While green roofs cost anywhere from two to three times that of a conventional roof, they have a much longer life expectancy, between 40 and 50 years, if properly installed.

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A roof grows in Portland

As a leader among cities adopting what it calls the "ecoroof," Portland encourages them as a solution to myriad urban ills, from storm-water collection to habitat loss. Homeowners and businesses that install the roofs can benefit from city grants. A number of other cities--among them Los Angeles, Seattle, San Jose, and San Diego--are also researching and developing policies to encourage green-roof construction.

The reasons are both practical and ideological. Portland suffers more than 50 rainfall events per year that cause its dated storm-water system to overflow. …

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