Living roof is 'green' in every sense

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Is your roof alive? (No, moss doesn't count.) Part of Eric Fisher's roof in Shadyside is. So is one atop Conservation Consultants Inc. in South Side, thanks to Melanie Tuck.

Mr. Fisher and Ms. Tuck will show how they created living roofs that support sedum and other hardy plants tomorrow at the second annual Pittsburgh Design Fair for House and Garden. The event, which will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Priory's Grand Hall on the North Side, has a "green" theme this year, which means there will be lots of exhibitors demonstrating and discussing ways we can do less harm to the environment.

Well, you can't get much greener, both literally and figuratively, than growing plants up top. Not only do living or green roofs absorb the sun's heat, keeping a building cooler in summer and warmer in winter, they soak up rainwater that would otherwise end up in the gutter, downspout and eventually, storm sewers.

But what if it doesn't rain? Because it's new, the CCI roof gets a weekly watering. But once the plants are established, they'll get along just fine without water for weeks. And when they get really parched, they can be watered from a rain barrel that will soon be installed.

Free solar tour set for Saturday
At least 12 houses and commercial buildings will be featured on a free Pittsburgh Solar Tour from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. next Saturday and Oct. 5.
The tour, part of a national tour organized by the American Solar Energy Society (, will include houses on the North Side and in Penn Hills and Slippery Rock. Also, Conservation Consultants Inc., 64 S. 14th St., South Side, will be open for tours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Saturday. For information on locations:

"It's designed to conserve everything you can," said Ms. Tuck, 35, a senior environmental studies major at Chatham.

Conservation Consultants Inc. applied for and received a $54,000 state grant to create the approximately 70- by 20-foot living roof, which was made with 179 2-by-4-foot Green Grid modules and 18 types of plants from Sunny Border Nursery in Jefferson, Ohio. In the Grand Hall tomorrow, Ms. Tuck will have three planted modules and storyboards, photos and information about her project in a Chatham-sponsored display.

Mr. Fischer, an architect, plans to have storyboards explaining his 41-by-14-foot roof and his modern house, which he designed and finished building last year (featured in the Post-Gazette on Nov. 3, 2007). Gary Lichtenfels of Lichtenfels Nursery in Johnstown installed the nearly 575-square-foot roof using components made by Roofscapes Inc. of Philadelphia and plants from Emory Knoll Farms and Green Roof Plants near Street, Md. It cost about $10 per square foot or $5,750.

Since his green roof is a year older than Ms. Tuck's, the plants are much larger and fuller. Like a garden, it changes with the seasons as plants flower at different times. Now that it is established, it requires little watering or maintenance by him or his wife Mary. It's like having a little garden just outside the bedroom door, he said, and adds one more element to an already unique house.

"A building that looks like it has hair is totally cool," said Mr. Fisher, 49, an adjunct assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

A built-in-place living roof like Mr. Fisher's is more commonly found on large commercial or institutional buildings; the Shadyside Giant Eagle and Hamerschlag Hall at Carnegie Mellon University both have them. The modular system Ms. Tuck used at CCI is more often found on houses or other smaller roofs. It's more portable and easier to repair if a leak develops (a rare problem) and the modules can be rearranged to create paths or for maintenance.

No matter which type of living roof is installed, it's heavy. Though the modules at CCI contain only 4 inches of soil, each one weighs 180 pounds when wet, Ms. Tuck said. That weight is the main reason she asks two questions of anyone considering one: How old is your roof and when was it last maintained or repaired?

Her one other caution is one familiar to any gardener: A living roof doesn't look like much at first. That's why she's packed more than the usual two plants per square foot in the modules she's bringing to the fair. The plants on CCI's roof will take two to three years to reach their mature height, from 4 to 18 inches high.

"That was the most disappointing part. People say 'Uh, what is that?' "

Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 1, 2008) This story as originally published Sept. 27, 2008 incorrectly identified the recipient of a state grant to build a green roof on the South Side. Conservation Consultants Inc., where the roof was constructed, received the grant.

Kevin Kirkland can be reached at or 412-263-1978. First Published September 27, 2008 4:00 AM


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