Up with Green Roofs! It is time, St. Louis.

I had the pleasure of attending a Green Roof Design and Installation workshop last week in Nashville, Tennessee.  This course is for those interested in the green roof industry and Green Roof Professional accreditation.  It was a real treat to have Steven Peck, Founder and President of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, as our instructor.  We were also lucky enough to tour a 4-acre green roof at the Nashville Music City Center!

Nashville Music City Center Green Roof

Although I’m no architect, landscape architect, or engineer, I have a special interest in the living architecture industry.  In fact, I hope to get involved with green roof and living wall projects in the Midwest, and I can’t wait for cities like St. Louis and Kansas City to adopt living architecture incentive programs.  So many cities in North America already have green roof policiesNashville, Tennessee, offers a $10 per square foot incentive for green roofs, which is EXCELLENT considering green roofs can cost $11-50 per square foot!

Both KC and STL have environmental problems associated with urbanization, including major stormwater control problems, and Kansas City has one of the worst Urban Heat Islands  in the country! (About Urban Heat Islands.)  The impacts of climate change may amplify environmental problems already present in these cities.

A green roof policy would incentivize the implementation of green roofs, living walls, and other sustainable green infrastructure.  Why?  A few reasons:

  • Mitigate urban stormwater problemsNative Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve
  • Alleviate urban heat island effect
  • Reduce energy costs
  • Mitigate air, water, and soil pollution
  • Increase urban biodiversity (plants, insects, birds, etc.)
  • Beautify the urban jungle
  • Augment urban food production
  • Create green amenities for private consumers
  • Create park space for the general public

The St. Louis region already has green roofs at places like NGRREC in Alton, the St. Louis Zoo, Shaw Nature Reserve, SIUE, Webster University, Washington University in St Louis, Shaw Nature Reserve, just to name a few.

Now, I believe that many companies, organizations, non-profits, and regional government entities already support the concept of green roofs.  Here is a short list of folks I believe would/could/should support and benefit from a St. Louis Metro Green Roof Policy:

I’m sure there are more!!  Let’s go, St. Louis.  It’s time to make St. Louis a more sustainable, healthy, and verdant city!

Green Roof Tour

About me:  I am a LEED Green Associate, and have an M.S. of Environmental Sciences from SIU Edwardsville.  I’ve conducted research on green roofs and living retaining walls during my graduate work at SIUE.  I have also created artistic plant designs and assisted with installations for living wall projects (Pics in My LinkedIn).  I’m currently looking for career opportunities in the region.


What is Living Architecture?

Someone on Twitter recently asked me about living architecture.

So, what is Living Architecture?

Well, what is architecture?  Google tells me that it is the ‘art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.’  By extension, then, living architecture could be defined as the practice of integrating vegetation into the design and construction of the built environment.  Living architecture generally refers to green roofs and green walls.  That is the primary focus of the Living Architecture Monitor magazine.  I suppose the term ‘green infrastructure‘ could also apply to these technologies, which seek to mimic natural systems in an effort to maximize environmental benefits (stormwater control, UHIE reduction, air quality, biodiversity, etc.).


I have touched on Living Architecture numerous times in the blog.

Saving Rain for a Dry Day

The Nature of an Urban Jungle

Your Wall Should be Alive

A Green Retaining Wall

Boschert Greenway Living (Retaining) Wall

Living Wall Prezi (Presentation)

Living Architecture is beautiful, useful, and beneficial to human and environmental health.

Summer Day Hike at Shaw Nature Reserve

With a lull in the hot weather, we took a day hike today out at Shaw Nature Reserve.  Things looked crispy and dried up.  But, all things considered, the natives seem to be surviving.  Anywho, here are a few photos of our outing.

Baptisia australis

Beautiful seed pods.  This is Baptisia, though the exact species may be False Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis) or perhaps white False Indigo (Baptisia alba).  They are doing very well this year, considering the drought.

Silphium laciniatum

A towering Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) nodded as we passed by.

Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) brings vibrant color to the drought-stricken landscape.  Saw several of these plants in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden within the reserve.

Native Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve

Finally, a native green roof atop a new restroom facility near the Bascom House.

Saving Rain for a Dry Day

We save everything else for a rainy day.  Why shouldn’t we save the rain for a droughty day?

In the midst of this substantial summer drought, only those with irrigation and adequate water supply (as well as those lucky enough to receive a convective storm or two) seem to have green lawns, lush gardens, and healthy crops.  Unfortunately, many folks can’t afford to water their lawns and gardens enough to stave off the baking heat.  While irrigation is commonplace in agriculture, many farms only allocate parts of their land for priority watering.  And even then, inefficient irrigation systems and improper watering timing can quickly deplete water sources.  Water Conservation is extremely important!

What can we do?

Look at all that liquid gold going down the drain!

Perhaps we should focus more attention on the storage of water in containers or promoting the storage of water in aquifers when we do receive rain.  Lately, it seems like the weathery water hose is on full-blast or indefinitely kinked.

When it dries, it bakes and burns!  Silent and deadly Sun has supplanted the patter of rain.  In and out of cities, wind and flame advance relentlessly.  Menacing fires have become commonplace these days. (Huffington Post Green Article.)  Cities, often lacking much vegetation to burn, still scorch and bake in their asphalt and concrete ovens.

When it does rain, it pours.  Occasionally, as the sky finally fades from blue, sharp, black tempests drop buckets of water on the land, perhaps doing more harm than good.  The parched land can’t soak up rain quickly enough under heavy rain, producing stormwater runoff.  In the country, flash flooding erodes loose soil in agricultural fields and deepens gullies.  In the city, curb and gutter systems typically direct the relatively large amount of surface water that pours over roofs, roads and parking lots.  Stormwater sewers sometimes become overburdened in heavy rains and cause problems.  Retention ponds fill.  Basements flood.  Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) occur where stormwater and wastewater systems have been combined.

The rain from an intense event, gravity driven, runs away rapidly or, as the sunlight returns, quickly re-evaporates into the atmosphere.  Little is left that can benefit us and our surroundings for the longer-term.

But what if we made a strong effort to save stormwater for later use?  How could we do this? 

Here are a few ideas for rainwater harvesting, purification, storage, and use.

1.  Rain Barrels

Rain barrels are usually small holding tanks attached to existing roof gutters.  Rain barrel water isn’t usually purified, although many barrels utilize mesh openings to deter havens for mosquito larvae.  Without filtration mechanisms, this sort of water is likely to be somewhat contaminated with atmospheric and roof pollutants.  That said, the water is perfect for watering gardens and lawns nearby.  Rain barrels typically have one or two openings for spigots to accommodate water levels and hose connections.

2. Cisterns

Cisterns are essentially large holding tanks for water.  They can be operated similar to a rain barrel, or altered to improve water collection, filtration, purification, and use.  Cisterns are already in use in areas with only seasonal heavy precipitation, places where municipal lines are impossible to tie to, or places where water is already heavily used.  Earthships (as mentioned previously here and here) channel rainwater and snowmelt from the roofs into large cisterns buried in the soil berm encasing the home (“Water is precious, treat it as such“).  Storing the cistern in a berm moderates water temperature and greatly lengthens the lifespan of the cistern itself.  Eartships use various techniques to filter, purify, and prepare this stored water for

casual home use. (Video of Earthship cistern installation.)

Water Harvesting system

Innovative water harvesting system for an Eartship near Taos, NM.

3. Green Roofs

Green roofs are generally characterized as roofs covered by layers of vegetation, growing media, drainage materials, andNative Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve waterpoof membranes.  Green roofs reduce and delay stormwater runoff, filter air and water pollutants, add green space, reduce the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE), moderate interior temperature, increase the life of the roof membrane…the list goes on and on.  Green roofs aren’t necessarily the best way to store water for human use in the long-term, but the ability of vegetation and engineered growing materials to filter out pollutants means that any runoff produced (and collected by rain barrels and cisterns) is already naturally filtered.  Learn more about green roofs at GreenRoofs.org and GreenRoofs.com.

4.  Rain Gardens

Rain Gardens are similar in purpose to green roofs, although they are generally situated at ground level.  While green roofs usually use drought tolerant succulents, like Sedum, rain gardens tend to utilize native plants (See Missouri Grow Native!) that are tolerant of natural extremes in climate.  Again, rain gardens focus more on the reduction and slowing of stormwater than capturing it for later use. I guess you could capture the outflow for storage, but the benefits of native gardening are already putting you ahead.  Rain gardens can make up a portion of your landscaping that doesn’t normally require watering.  This prevents the wasting of perfectly-good-for-human-consumption water on we-can-deal-with-natural-water,-thanks vegetation.

5.  Living Retaining Walls

Green Retaining WallLiving Retaining Walls (LRWs) are retaining wall systems that stabilize slopes with blocks that facilitate plants.  I’ve posted about these several times.  Similar to other living systems, LRWs reduce and delay stormwater runoff while covering what would normally be hardscape with vegetation.  Any water draining from LRWs could possibly be stored for use, or fed into other green infrastructure like rain gardens (thus ‘saving’ the need to water more landscaping on dry days).  Actually, it might even be feasible to store water in cisterns within the retaining wall, which could be used for drip irrigation.  Oh, the possibilities!

All in all, we should focus on anything pervious that promotes local water storage or groundwater infiltration!  Return Nature to the Urban Jungle.

Many, many people rely on groundwater for municipal, commercial and agricultural consumption. Paving over everything and pushing stormwater rapidly downstream is dangerous as a source of flash flooding and disrupts natural hydrology (streamflow, groundwater/surface water interactions, infiltration rates).  Even where green space is present, construction and development have left it severely compacted, diminishing potential routes to aquifers.  Thus, all of the ideas listed above, plus anything else that reduces/slows runoff, promotes groundwater storage, and provides reserves could be beneficial.  Save it for a not-so-rainy day!

Related Links:

Catching and Using Rain Where it Falls

Legalizing Rainwater Harvesting

Your wall should be alive!

Some street trees, but many dead-walls.

You’re likely reading this from within the walls of your home or business.  If you are reading this outside, you’re likely not far from a building or any other man-made structure.  People spend 90% of their time inside.  And 82% of the people in the U.S. reside in urban or suburban areas.  Urban areas have become the hub of human activity.  Progress in economy, society, and technology may be partially attributed to the concentration of many minds and working hands in metropolitan areas.

Unfortunately, the way that urban areas have developed has left previously verdant land barren, supplanting comfortable greenscapes with harsh hardscapes.  Urban areas are consequently associated with temperatures measurably different from surrounding areas (the Urban Heat Island Effect); with reduced moisture availability ; with elevated flash flood risk; with poor air, water, and soil quality; and with artificial and ecologically irrelevant landscaping.

All pavement, all the time.

Inside or outside, you are surrounded by pavement, brick, steel, and glass.  You are almost always surrounded by vertical structures.  Inside, walls partition rooms, apartments, offices, firms, etc.  Outside, there are building walls, retaining walls, standalone walls, and fences.  These walls surely have purpose (“A world without walls” sounds like a Dr. Suess book), but they often perform their space-dividing function boringly.  The walls of most rooms you enter are plain and off-white in color.  Blank walls beg for picture frames, calendars and mirrors to cover their mediocrity.  Outside, you are greeted by white picket fences, mildly decorative rock and brick building facades, plastic home siding, and often bland retaining walls that repeatedly remind you and any passerby that you have not escaped the urban jungle.  Your walls are dead.

But what if they weren’t?  What if your walls lived?  (Just don’t expect to fine a heartbeat.)  What if vegetation could make a comeback in the city and revitalize all of the  monotonous vertical spaces?

The truth is, it is now possible to vegetate all kinds of urban spaces.  Just as green roofs have begun to grow on homes and businesses in Germany, Japan, the United States, and all over the world, the green wall is emerging as another innovative answer to urban woes.

The beginning of a green facade!

As technology has progressed, green walls have diversified into two major categories–green facades and living walls.  Facades use vines or ivy that climb a wall directly (though some argue that rootlets can damage walls) or indirectly (using a trellis or cable system).  Living walls generally use vegetation and media in a modular setup.  Living walls can adorn interior walls as living art, as air purifiers, and as productivity and mood enhancers.  Living walls can adorn exterior walls as massive building coverings, as plantable retaining walls (mentioned in a previous post), and even as standalone filtration structures (like the Folkewall).  Green fences can act as ivy-covered privacy screens.  Green walls can even sustain food-producing plants to supplement community gardens!

So, you have options when it comes to softening your urban jungle.  Living walls can moderate temperature, stormwater, wind, noise, and mood.  Living walls can provide ecological benefits.  Living walls can provide food.  Your walls can be alive!

It's alive!

Learn more about Living Walls HERE or join the LinkedIn group to join the conversation!.

The Nature of an Urban Jungle

Urban Centers Now

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. Seas of pavement. Forests of street lamps, street signs, and leafless telephone poles. Savannas of symmetrical parks, manicured lawns and perfect -unnaturally perfect- ornamental trees. Rivers of highway back-logged with cars and freighters. Mountains of

brick, concrete, wood, and glass built to shield us from the o’-so-harsh elements.

Where there is economic development, there is usually environmental degradation.  One is sacrificed for the other in the name of “Progress.”  Progress includes stripping mountains of their mountaintops, relieving forests of their leafy blankets, replacing verdant prairie with crop monocultures, replacing cropland with shiny-10-mpg-SUV-ridden suburbia, encapsulating municipal ‘trash’ in tombs that rival the ancient Pyramids of Giza, choking once pristine waterways with effluent, trash, and sediment eroded from denuded stream banks, browning and blackening the air, poisoning and exploiting our worldly neighbors. Progress seems to include urbanizing, shutting out, ignoring, destroying, breaking, burning. (I recall the Ent’s rant from Lord of the Rings.)

Urban Centers Re-Visualized

Instead, try to visualize a metropolitan area that aggressively strives to be verdant, sustainable and self-sufficient.

A walk down main street is a pleasure, not a chore.  Old buildings have been restored according to LEED standards, and are teeming with activity.  Building facades are checkered with superinsulated solar windows and trellis-twining vine green walls.  Looking up, roofs are home to plants (green roofs), solar panels, and helical wind turbines. The sidewalk underfoot appears unusual; it’s porous pavement, which reduces stormwater runoff and flooding, and also brings moisture to abundant street trees.

You come to the edge of an intersection and find not a wedge of concrete or a patch of sterile grass but an urban garden.  Some backpacks lay at the edge of the garden.  Some children are tending to their crops.  They seem excited about the plants they’ve learned to care for, the seeds they’ve planted, the plants they’ve watched grow, and the food they get to bring home.  As they scamper home with a few ripe vegetables, you turn back to the intersection.  Instead of a complicated and fuel-wasting 4-way stop, a traffic circle greets oncoming motorists.  As traffic rolls smoothly about this round about, you look closely to the center circle.  Instead of a cement-curbed impervious surface, a rain garden adorns this traffic circle.  The native grasses, forbs, and shrubs, wait patiently for the next rain.  They  gladly accept stormwater runoff that would otherwise drain into the sewer and end up -untreated- in local waterways.

You follow the street to the bus stop, which is adorned by solar panels to generate electricity and provide shelter as you sit at the bench.  A few minutes pass and the bus quietly pulls up.  Fueled by an alternative energy, it doesn’t spew exhaust in your face when it stops.  The doors open.  Going up the steps you see roof reinforcements in the bus.  An infographic shows you pictures of this bus’s extensive green roof.  Drought-tolerant stonecrops (Sedum) wait patiently on the bus roof for the next rain while providing mobile greenery for residents looking out from their restored multi-story buildings.  The roof reinforcements ensure structural integrity, even under the full load of saturated growing media and plants during rains.

You look out the window as the green roof bus enters the highway.  You are not in a claustrophobic corridor of asphalt lanes and concrete barrier walls.  Where possible, the pavement has been painted with electricity-generating nano-solar cells.  The sound barriers that attempt to block displeasing sounds and sights for nearby residences are made more effective with coverings of ivy facades and living walls of other plants.  As the bus rounds the side of a hill, even the retaining walls facilitate vegetation, rendering the living retaining wall itself almost invisible.

Finally you arrive home after walking a couple blocks from your bus stop.  It is dusk and as you approach your yard, the solar-powered LED street lights blink on.  You stop and admire your short-grass prairie lawn.  The buffalo grass might need to be mowed once or twice this year, so no rush.  Your flower garden along your home is vibrant with drought-tolerant, climate-adjusted native plants – bees, butterflies, and birds love them!  You might water the  garden tomorrow, but only with water from your rain barrel at the foot of your gutter.  Your roof also supports an extensive green roof system.  Succulents and grasses thrive up there.  The system retains stormwater, or at least slows it down during larger storms.  The stormwater the roof cannot hold goes down the gutters into the rain barrel or towards your backyard rain garden.  Any excess stormwater from the rain garden passes through a grass swale before finally trickling into the storm sewer.  You are eager to disconnect your stormwater flows from the sewer whenever possible.  The risk of the stormwater inundating combined stormwater/sanitary sewers would mean messy combined sewer overflows and basement backups.  Otherwise, you might not want to eat that fish you caught at your favorite spot.

The greenery throughout your city provides stormwater benefits, thermal benefits for the buildings and the microclimate, efficiency boosts for photovoltaics (See Green Roofs and Solar Panel Efficiency), aesthetically pleasing views, noise reduction, to name a few.  Besides, you can save rain for a dry day.

Green roofs, green walls, rain gardens, public gardens, etc. provide sanctuary to otherwise nature-deficient city dwellers.  Reusing and revitalizing abandoned areas is important. Incorporating safe, useful public transit is important. Educating children that the outdoors are to be explored is important; to learn to dismiss the overbearing fears of a wild nature, the risk of playing outdoors, the intangible but strong grasp of liability (sue-happy society)…is IMPORTANT. (See Nature Deficit Disorder.)  We must mitigate suburban and exurban sprawl and revitalize what we already have. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Three words more powerful than faint arrows on a pop bottle.

There is nothing natural about an urban setting. That said, 7 billion people need to live SOMEWHERE. Perhaps we will realize the necessity of following the principles of sustainability and that we should be stewards of God’s Creation, not robbers of its bounty.