What Is a Living Roof?

In the quest for more sustainable living spaces, the concept of a green roof has emerged as a compelling solution. Blending function with beauty atop our homes and buildings – these living roofs do more than just provide an aesthetic appeal. They offer significant environmental benefits, including improved insulation and energy efficiency, enhanced air quality, and an effective drainage system to manage stormwater. As cities become denser, the push for greener, more resilient infrastructures grows. Understanding what a green roof is and how it contributes to a building’s performance and sustainability becomes increasingly important.

green roof / living roof

This article delves into green roofs, exploring the nuances of their design. From garden roofs that adorn residential homes, to extensive green roof systems integrated into commercial buildings. Readers will gain insights into the benefits of installing a green roof, such as how it can lead to energy savings by improving insulation. Well also discuss the challenges one might face during implementation. Additionally, the piece will cover the various types of green roofs available. This in turn will provide a comprehensive overview to help homeowners and building managers decide if a living roof aligns with their goals. By dissecting the intricacies of green roofs, this article will provide a thorough understanding of why adopting such a system could be a pivotal decision for the sustainable-minded.

What is a Living Roof

A living roof, also known as a green roof, is essentially a roof of a building that is partially or fully covered with vegetation and a growing medium, placed over a waterproofing membrane. This innovative roofing option may also incorporate additional layers such as root barriers, and drainage and irrigation systems to support the vegetation.

Key Components of a Living Roof

  1. Waterproofing Membrane: This is the fundamental layer that ensures the roof remains water-resistant.
  2. Root Barrier: A layer to prevent roots from penetrating the waterproof membrane and causing leaks.
  3. Drainage System: Helps to manage water runoff, preventing waterlogging and ensuring the roof’s longevity.
  4. Filter Cloth: Positioned above the drainage layer, it prevents the washing away of soil and clogging of the drainage system.
  5. Growing Medium: Typically a lightweight soil or soil substitute that supports plant growth without adding excessive weight to the structure.
  6. Vegetation: The type of plants used can vary from sedums and grasses to more complex garden-like setups with bushes and small trees.

Functions and Benefits

Green roofs serve multiple purposes for a building, beyond just aesthetics. They absorb rainwater, provide insulation, and create habitats for wildlife, thereby increasing biodiversity. These roofs also contribute to the reduction of urban air temperatures, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and offer a more aesthetically pleasing landscape which can decrease stress for individuals in the vicinity.

Types of Green Roofs

  • Extensive Green Roofs: These are lightweight, require minimal maintenance, and are typically covered with sedums or small grasses.
  • Intensive Green Roofs: These are heavier, can support a wider variety of plants, and require more maintenance. They can include features like walkways and benches.
  • Modular Green Roofs: Consist of pre-planted modules that can be directly installed on the roof, making them easier to maintain and modify.

Installation Flexibility

Green roofs are suitable for a wide range of buildings, from small residential garages to large commercial or municipal structures. They can be installed on new buildings or retrofitted to existing ones, making them versatile options for urban development.

By integrating these various components and benefits, living roofs not only enhance the ecological performance of urban areas but also provide significant economic benefits by improving the energy efficiency of buildings and increasing roof longevity.

Benefits of a Living Roof

Environmental Advantages

Living roofs are instrumental in moderating the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon where urban areas experience higher temperatures than their rural surroundings. This moderation occurs as green roofs provide shade and remove heat from the air, significantly reducing the temperatures of the roof surface and the surrounding air. Studies have shown that green roof temperatures can be 30-40°F lower than those of conventional roofs, potentially reducing city-wide ambient temperatures by up to 5°F.

Additionally, these roofs contribute to better water management by controlling runoff, which in turn decreases the likelihood of flooding and reduces the strain on urban sewer systems during heavy rainfall. The vegetation on green roofs also plays a crucial role in filtering chemical air pollutants and increasing biodiversity, creating habitats for various plant and animal species.

Energy Efficiency

Green roofs offer substantial energy savings by improving insulation and reducing the need for heating and cooling. Buildings with living roofs have shown a decrease in energy use by approximately 0.7% compared to those with conventional roofs. This improvement in energy efficiency can lead to significant cost savings, with potential annual savings of $0.23 per square foot of roof surface. Moreover, the enhanced insulation properties help maintain a more stable internal temperature, leading to increased comfort indoors and a reduced incidence of heat stress during hot weather.

The energy performance of green roofs is especially notable in their ability to extend the lifespan of roofing materials. By protecting these materials from UV rays, frost, and extreme temperatures, green roofs can double or even triple a roof’s life expectancy, offering long-term financial benefits and sustainability.

Aesthetic and Mental Health Benefits

Living roofs don’t only enhance the visual appeal of building. They also provide a natural retreat in urban settings, which can improve mental health and well-being. The presence of green spaces has been associated with reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure, and overall enhanced productivity. These spaces offer residents and workers a place to relax, fostering social interaction and recreational activities. This in turn contributes to increased social cohesion and reduced aggression in neighborhoods.

Moreover, the aesthetic improvement brought by green roofs can increase property values and attract more visitors or potential tenants. This quality makes them a lucrative feature for commercial properties. The integration of such natural elements into urban architecture promotes a healthier, more inviting environment for everyone in the community.

By incorporating these environmental, economic, and social benefits, green roofs present a compelling case for their widespread adoption in urban planning and building design.

Challenges of Implementing a Living Roof

Cost Considerations

Implementing a green roof involves various financial considerations that can significantly impact the feasibility and design of the project. The initial capital costs for installing a green roof are typically higher than those for conventional roofs. Factors influencing these costs include the size of the roof, location, labor availability, and the depth of the growing medium. For instance, extensive green roofs in Minnesota can range from $10 to $30 per square foot, with intensive green roofs costing significantly more. Additionally, the need for specialized structural support can further escalate the expenses. Maintenance costs also play a crucial role, especially in the first five years post-installation, which are often included in the initial installation contract but vary based on the roof’s size and the level of maintenance required.

Structural Requirements

A critical challenge in the implementation of a living roof is ensuring that the existing roof structure can support the additional weight, especially when saturated with water. Green roofs require the assessment of both stormwater storage and structural capacity. It is essential to involve a structural engineer or qualified professional early in the design process to evaluate whether the building can support the extra load. For roofs with slopes steeper than 2:12, specialized reinforcement is necessary to prevent the green roof system from sliding, adhering to standards such as the German FLL guidelines, which recommend a maximum slope of 40 degrees.

Maintenance Needs

Maintaining a living roof requires consistent attention to ensure its health and longevity. The type of maintenance varies with the roof type; extensive green roofs generally need less frequent care compared to intensive green roofs, which may require maintenance similar to traditional gardens. Routine tasks include weeding, inspecting for leaks, and ensuring proper drainage. Additionally, maintenance inspections should be carried out at least twice a year during the growing season to assess vegetative cover and structural integrity. Access to the roof is also a crucial design consideration, as it facilitates the delivery of materials for construction and ongoing maintenance. Proper planning for maintenance access and the associated costs is essential for the successful implementation and sustainability of a living roof.

Types of Living Roofs

Extensive vs. Intensive Systems

Extensive and intensive green roofs represent two primary approaches to vegetative roofing, each with distinct characteristics and applications.

Extensive Green Roofs

Extensive green roofs are designed with simplicity and low maintenance in mind. They typically feature a shallow growing medium, often only 2 to 6 inches deep, which supports drought-resistant plants such as sedums and grasses. These roofs are lighter, less costly, and generally do not require regular access for maintenance. They are ideal for covering large areas and are primarily installed for their environmental benefits, including improved insulation and stormwater management.

Intensive Green Roofs

In contrast, intensive green roofs are akin to traditional gardens. They can include a variety of plants from shrubs to small trees. They require a deeper growing medium—ranging from 6 inches to several feet. This type of green roof is heavier and requires more maintenance. Irrigation and regular upkeep are key. Intensive roofs often feature recreational spaces with walkways and seating, making them accessible and enjoyable for individuals.

Plant and Material Selection

The choice of plants and materials for green roofs depends significantly on the type of roof system being implemented. Each has different requirements in terms of soil depth, weight, and maintenance needs.

Extensive Roof Plant Selection

For extensive roofs, plant selection is crucial due to the shallow soil depth, which dries out quickly. Plants chosen for these roofs need to be hardy and able to withstand harsh rooftop conditions with minimal water. Sedum species, known for their drought tolerance and low maintenance requirements, are commonly used. Other suitable plants include various grasses and succulents that are adapted to similar environments.

Intensive Roof Plant Selection

Intensive roofs offer more flexibility in plant selection due to their deeper soil depths. This allows for a greater variety of plants, including ornamental grasses, perennials, and even small trees. The selection should consider the specific environmental conditions and the intended use of the roof. For instance, if the goal is to support local biodiversity, a mix of native species that attract pollinators may be ideal.

Material Considerations

The growing medium in green roofs plays a critical role in the health and success of the vegetation. For extensive roofs, the medium is typically lightweight. It incorporates materials like expanded clay or recycled brick, which provide good drainage and reduce weight load. Intensive roofs, however, can use a richer, more diverse mix of organic and inorganic materials to support a wider range of plant life.

Choosing the right plants and materials for a living roof is essential for its success. It not only affects the roof’s sustainability and maintenance needs, but also its overall performance in terms of energy efficiency and stormwater management.

Is a Living Roof Right for You?

Deciding whether to install a living roof involves weighing various factors. These range from environmental benefits to structural requirements and maintenance needs. Here’s a detailed look to help you determine if a green roof is suitable for your building.

Evaluating Structural Suitability and Cost

Before considering a green roof, it’s crucial to assess the structural integrity of your existing roof. Green roofs are heavier than conventional roofs, adding between 50 and 200kg per square meter. Buildings, especially older ones, may require structural reinforcement to support this additional weight. This can increase initial costs. These costs are often higher due to the need for specialized materials and labor. However, the long-term benefits, such as increased roof longevity and energy savings, can offset the initial investment.

Maintenance and Upkeep

Green roofs require maintenance similar to that of a garden. This includes watering, weeding, and ensuring the health of the plants. Depending on the type of green roof—extensive or intensive—the level of maintenance will vary. Extensive roofs typically need less frequent care, while intensive roofs require more regular maintenance. Prospective green roof owners should consider whether they are willing to commit time or resources to maintain their roof.

Environmental Impact

One of the most compelling reasons to choose a green roof is its positive impact on the environment. Green roofs improve air quality by reducing pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrous acid and can decrease carbon dioxide emissions. They also support urban biodiversity, providing habitats for various species. Additionally, green roofs manage stormwater effectively, reducing runoff and lowering the risk of flooding.

Energy Efficiency

The insulation properties of green roofs contribute significantly to reducing a building’s energy needs. By maintaining more stable internal temperatures, green roofs lessen the reliance on heating and cooling systems, leading to lower energy bills. The thermal mass of the soil and plants also helps to moderate the temperature of the roof itself, enhancing overall energy efficiency.

Aesthetic and Lifestyle Benefits

Beyond practical and environmental advantages, green roofs offer aesthetic value. They transform unused roof spaces into attractive green areas that can serve as serene retreats or active garden spaces. For many, the appeal of having a lush, accessible garden area in an urban setting is a significant draw. Additionally, green roofs can increase property values, making them a potentially lucrative investment.

Considerations for Urban Settings

In urban areas, noise and air pollution are more pronounced. Green roofs provide a respite by significantly reducing noise levels and improving air quality. Their ability to absorb sound and filter pollutants creates a more pleasant and healthier living environment.

By carefully considering these factors, property owners can make an informed decision about whether a living roof is right for their building. The benefits of green roofs, from environmental to economic, make them an attractive option for those looking to enhance their property’s sustainability and aesthetic appeal.


Throughout this article, we’ve journeyed through the world of green roofs, understanding their vital role in promoting sustainable urban living. We’ve examined the multifaceted benefits of living roofs. From their positive impact on the environment, to their economic and aesthetic advantages. The challenges of implementation, including initial costs and structural considerations, highlight the need for careful planning and evaluation to ensure successful integration of a green roof into any building project.

The decision to install a green roof should not be taken lightly. However, the wide array of benefits it brings to the table makes it a compelling option for those looking to make a long-term investment in their property and the planet. Whether for environmental reasons, energy efficiency, or simply to have a beautiful green space, a living roof represents a step forward in sustainable urban design. If you’re considering different roofing options, don’t hesitate to get a free quote today.

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