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.


Forget Climate, are we Prepared for the Weather?

The debate rages on over climate change and what needs to be done to address it, if anything.  Regardless of your position on that matter, there’s no escaping the certitude of the weather.  The weather!  With all the baked lawns, charred forest, buckling pavement, derechos, unusual tornado patterns, etc., maybe we should consider that we aren’t even prepared for the weather!!

We aren’t prepared to withstand substantial drought.  We aren’t prepared for scorching wildfires.   We aren’t prepared for flash flooding in our cities.   We aren’t prepared for  EF-5 tornadoes.    We aren’t prepared for straight-line winds that tear our tethers to the grid.

What can we do to be prepared?  Well, for one, carry an umbrella.  But what else is there?  Some weather events are so sudden and violent that preparation is almost impossible.  Other events (like the drought) last so long that we are unprepared for their lingering consequences.  But there are things we could do…things that not only protect us, but also provide ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Drought 2012

The drought in the United States this year has been brutal.  July was the warmest month on record for the contiguous United States.  Drought has encroached on over 63% of the lower 48 states.  Severe drought is classified as a natural disaster by the U.S. EPA.Drought-stricken Lawn

The drought has been particularly devastating to agriculture that relies on rain and irrigation from reliable water sources. Well, rain is gold these days and water sources are severely depleted.  Constant use and inefficient watering techniques have already depleted major groundwater resources, like the Ogallala aquifer that underlies much of the plains.  As opposed to some seasons when farmers are PAID TO PLOW CROPS UNDER (to maintain lucrative crop prices), prices this year are being forced higher for low supplies (like Corn).

There are several ways to deal with the drought.  Drought requires efficient watering of gardens and landscaping, if it’s not already banned (see watering tips by Joe Lamp’l, host of PBS “Growing a Greener World”).  Some farmers are watering parts of their land while sacrificing others.

But more importantly, how could we be better prepared for drought in the future?  Well, we shouldn’t be wasting our resources on extracting, filtering, and purifying drinking water just to flush it down the toilet and wash the car. Water conservation is a primary concern today, but it should be habit on a daily basis.  It should be as simple as using greywater or collected rainwater for flushing toilets, watering the lawn, and washing cars.  The plants we add to our landscapes should be native, drought tolerant, and/or deep-rooted.  Irrigation to gardens and ag fields should be extremely efficient.  Drip irrigation and low-level, properly-timed sprayers can effectively provide moisture to the plants while minimizing loss by evaporation, salt-accumulation, and soil erosion.

Drought reduces moisture levels in the soil and leaves dry tinder for rampant wildfires.  Part of the reason for the terrible fires is from intense fire suppression by foresters.  Several years ago, we thought fire was bad in all circumstances.  We are now finding that fire is a natural part most ecosystems.  When fires are allowed to occur naturally and regularly, the understory kindling doesn’t usually build up so much as to scorch everything.  That is why controlled-burns and thinning of vegetation have become accepted practice in forests and prairies all over the world.  Burning reduces wildfire fuel, destroys intolerant invasive plants, and brings back native and natural growth.


On the other end of the scale, flooding and especially flash flooding are dangerous occurrences that inundate homes and threaten lives.

What can you do for this?  Well, first, DO NOT build on a flood plain!  Just because you haven’t seen floodwaters reach far beyond its channel in your lifetime doesn’t mean it has happened before or will happen again.  The flat area along water bodies are naturally inundated during 1-in-10, 1-in-100, and 1-in-1000 year rain events.

Next, flooding tends to be exacerbated in urban areas where concrete, asphalt, and compacted soils prevent rainwater from infiltrating into the ground.  Instead, the water becomes surface runoff.  Most urban areas have sewer systems to carry away stormwater, but sometimes those systems reach capacity.  In cases where stormwater systems have been combined with sewer systems, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) can spew a mixture of stormwater and untreated sewage into waterways.

Look at all that liquid gold going down the drain!

To fight flooding in urban areas, stormwater should be minimized or at least slowed down.  That can be done with pervious pavements, larger areas of urban parks and forests, retention ponds, and detention ponds.  We can store it in cisterns or rain barrels for later use.  We can also incorporate green infrastructure including grass swales; constructed, restored, or expanded wetlands; rain gardens, green roofs, green walls (an introduction), and pervious pavement.  These options generally add vegetation that can help store and evapotranspire the water and increasing the area of permanent and temporary water storage.  On top of minimizing stormwater runoff, many of these green technologies provide temperature benefits, air quality improvement, shade, soothing green space, opportunities for using native plants, and habitat for local wildlife.

Native Green Roof at Shaw Nature Reserve

Whitmire Wildflower Garden

Tornado Alley

You’d think everyone in the center of the country would have proper tornado protection plans.  Best places to be during harsh storms include a reinforced shelter, in a basement, or in a small interior room.  But because of geology, hydrology, and cost, many homes just don’t have protection.  Approximately 82 percent of the homes didn’t have basements in Joplin, Missouri, where the EF-5 Tornado struck last year (my college hometown).  In Oklahoma, it is very difficult and costly to construct a basement (See why).

So what can we do?  Well, we can build stronger homes and remove or secure obstacles outside that could become projectiles.  Also, we can incorporate safe rooms made from recycled plastic materials.  Recent research shows they work very well.  During the rebuilding of Joplin, many are choosing to install safe rooms.  EFJoplin (Originally Project JOMO) offers some of these safe rooms constructed from recycled materials.  This can divert great volumes of plastic from landfills, which are becoming fuller and fewer across the U.S.

On a related note, tornadoes, hurricanes and even violent straight-line winds can damage homes and leave many without power.  Most homes and businesses simply cannot function without electricity.  Some people cannot live without electric-powered medical devices, air conditioning, and heat.  What can we do about this?

Well, aside from building homes stronger and utilizing passive lighting and temperature moderation (skylights, large windows, etc. for natural light and air circulation), we could provide our own power and be semi-independent from the utilities.  Photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, combined with still-improving backup systems, can provide emergency power without fossil-fuel generators.

To be completely independent of the grid, these technologies must be employed with other innovations in sustainable building design.  Earthships (see a previous entry), for example, are completely off-the-grid homes with numerous innovations to make comfortable but efficient living possible.

I could go on and on.  To me, the principles of sustainability appear to align with improving the human need for food, water, and shelter.  If all of these are improved, we may be able to better weather what we receive from Mother Nature.

Living Wall Prezi

I recently experimented with the innovative presentation tool called Prezi.  This is an amazing way to visualize presentations, get the bigger picture, and allow for a less linear look.  This is a presentation I made last week outlining the basics about living walls

“Introduction to Living Walls”

Let me know what you think.  If the embed code didn’t work…view it on Prezi.

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!.

A Green Retaining Wall

During my studies at SIUE, I was introduced to innovative technologies that are designed to address urban environmental problems.  Green roofs, blue roofs, green walls, rain gardens, bioswales, etc. can help mitigate stormwater runoff and/or the Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE).  I conducted  my thesis project on a specific kind of green wall, a green retaining wall.  A green retaining wall (or some variant of living landscape wall or green landscaping wall) is designed to stabilize a slope and create space for development just like a conventional retaining wall.  The difference is that these retaining walls are plantable.

Remember the eyesore of a towering retaining wall at the edge of a parking lot?  How about the monotonous wall in a hilly yard?  Well, plantable retaining walls give us the opportunity to beautify urban space without compromising function.  In addition, they can provide environmental benefits like stormwater management, temperature moderation, noise reduction, and biodiversity improvements.  These retaining walls have been employed all over the country, including the St. Louis area.  Although, not all of the walls have been planted.

While the blocks themselves offer great texture compared to a traditional retaining wall,  not seeing them for the greenery is ideal.

Hmm….if anyone happens to see these walls left unplanted, consider some guerrilla gardening. Just kidding…maybe.  And maybe learn about living retaining walls through a new St. Louis-based company, The Living Wall Company.

Have you seen something like this before?