Monday, July 22, 2013

The Philosophy of Maintenance

As many professionals know, vegetated roofs are designed and sold for a variety of reasons to solve easy and complex problems.  Often, the maintenance falls into a standard form that is handed to an owner within the closing documents of the entire construction documents.  However, manufacturers and growers who set these simple standards are often not involved after the installation has been completed, and never return back to the roof site.  Owners are left maintaining the vegetated roofs (which is very different from at grade landscape management) whether or not they have experience in roofing or landscape.

As is common with any new technology, facility managers may question an irrigation schedule, the necessity to weed, and what to do if certain areas of the roof under-perform.  The best thing we as designers, installers, and manufacturers, can do in advance of closing documents is to create the most resilient ecosystem by designing a defensive plant palette that fits within the microclimate of the rooftop, and stay in regular communication with the owner and/or facility manager by filling out reports, just like GREENFORMATIONTM.

I recently converted a green roof owner after the installer requirements were completed to hiring a maintenance consultant, my company AD Greenroof.   In Minneapolis this year, we experienced a prolonged winter.  (I’m not going to discuss the 18” snow storm we got on May 2, that was ridiculous!)  Plants were slow to emerge and green up. Aside from a few industry professionals, no one was thinking about maintenance.  Of course, after a few warm sunny days, the plants really started coming around, and so did their competitors.  By the second week of June, I saw common green roof weeds encroaching on the roof.  However, after all the approvals and scheduling the crew to work, some of the weeds had already set flower and seed.  While keeping within the budget, we found creative solutions to managing the weeds.

Designing a resilient green roof includes “early and often” maintenance.   In addition to weeding, thinning also happens.  Thinning occurs when intended plants get aggressive and may crowd out other species.  It’s important to keep diversity and healthy intended plants!  I haven’t thinned many Sedum based roofs, but I certainly have with native and other herbaceous forbs. 

Ah, bring up the bags, it’s time to pull some plant biomass!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Voice, A Respite, and Green space surrounding it all

Everyone has a voice and opinion in the world, expressed from the beginning of time.  One of the surprising things I picked up in my technical writing minor was how scientists’ centuries ago communicated with each other and the public.   Next time you are in an old science museum, or get a hand on old medical textbook, take a look at how they detail their observations and relate it to causes and effects; and what their recommendations are to fix the problem.  It‘s all very cool stuff!

Mercy West green roof prep. Patient room windows being installed.
With social media, we choose to follow, listen, and share our stories, thoughts, and research with others who may want to know, or who can’t wait to complain about it.  Haha.  Our green roof industry accepts similar praise and criticism especially as Rain Taxes and other fees associated with green building construction tend to bring on the naysayers along with those supporting its successes.  For my business, we find social media as an inexpensive marketing tool that stays very current with trends- although they are not scientifically proven or factually correct.  Just as with my blog here, social media is full of personal opinion sometimes, but not always, driven from personal experience.  If you like it, you’ll read more; If you need green roof service, perhaps you’ll remember my name.

Today, I want to highlight Mercy West Hospital in Cincinnati OH that I just saw pop on Twitter and Facebook that I was actively involved with for many months before leaving Tecta at the end of 2012.   Because I am not currently involved in the project, the best way to stay informed is to follow those who are!  The Mercy West Hospital was bid by Turner Co.  Based from a local relationship and Tecta’s past history with green roofing, I was brought in to the local office to help estimate, offer specification clarification, and ultimately sell the project and Tecta’s expertise.   We won the bid, which
Ariel view of site with green roof soil and berms in place Nov '12
included a 110,000 sf semi-intensive green roof and many other conventional roofed areas.  The hardest sell I found, however, was to the new project manager who was tasked with managing the entire roof job- the idea of his crew installing drainage, soil, and growing plants- was a little overwhelming.   And, with good reason- this was a huge undertaking with a living system full of forbs and succulents! The installation finally happened in late September 2012 and went down as quickly as the roofing was inspected, even though we needed water pressure and just didn't have it where we needed it.   The job remained on time and within the budget I proposed, which I admit to bragging a bit on that.  (I'm allowed to, this is a BLOG- haha)

It was certainly a team effort – not only by the general contractor – but also by the vendors and subs selected for the green roof materials and work.   During the test run of the layout, the Colbond rolls were reasonably spaced out, with instructions located in the ship wrap.  Meeting Meisner Assoc. on site several times to approve various progress points was usually fun, but some times stressful.    I remember seeing RK Hydrovac crews black from head to toe by blowing the soil and barely recognizing them weeks later at a trade show.  The on site communication I
Spring May '13
had with Emory Knoll Farms on the planting progress allowed them to stay on shipping targets during the busy fall.  Green City’s team planting the berms and staying on their target while sharing interesting and local green roof stories. 
A successful installation in fall is a great way to end the year!  The best long term success of a green roof is how well it’s maintained, how the hospital staff appreciate it from all views of the building for years to come and most importantly, how responsive the patients are to having a green roof view.  With the staff already very excited about how quickly the roof greened up and is growing this spring, I am sure the updates from this record breaking design will be keeping us in the know!  For the latest plant blooming and more information, click here:

NOTE: An updated article with new photos and project description is here!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Gift of Sight

In a national corporation, where the value of an individual with specific experience and skill set is in demand, I found myself traveling across the country on a very regular basis.  Some times I would be asked to present to a very important client and design team.  Other visits required me to walk on to job sites wearing a safety helmet, vest and safety glasses (Yep!  I would take them on the plane as well).  Other times I would travel to meet the various Tecta offices who needed more education on how to sell and install green roofs.  My favorite visits involved evaluating an existing green roof system and why it may be failing; and make recommendations on how to fix it – and within a budget.

There were many memorable days and nights of travel, as one could expect.  The 7+ hour delays in Newark, O’Hare, Birmingham, Atlanta, etc ; the occasional flight upgrade or chance to grab an earlier flight;  and of course the variety of characters you meet along those travel hours.

One visit to Minneapolis I was waiting to return to Baltimore.  I had just finished an installation that dragged out, but I had a chance to visit with many of my family members who lived in town.  The flight was delayed, only 30 minutes or so, and we were finally on the runway waiting for clearance.  The pilot started to describe what was actually happening…. We were just further delayed because a set of eye balls just became available, and they were needed at the Johns Hopkins transplant unit.  WHAT?!  I had never heard of such a thing.  Well, I plan to be an organ donor and everything, but I had never had an incident so closely brush my world. 

The ambulance soon arrived at the plane; I thought I saw a small box loaded into the cargo area.   The pilot then announced that because we were now flagged as “transporting an organ” (I am sure the FAA has a better word for that) we were going to be re-routed to the most direct flight pattern possible at top speed, and we’d certainly arrive early!  Well, that was a sweet deal!

The whole time on the plane, I felt a little weird.  Here was an instant situation where I knew someone had died and someone else is going to benefit greatly from this unfortunate circumstance.  At least one family had great hope that their loved one would be healed within two hours. 

And, just as weird, there was a possibility of a set of cold eyes sitting on top of my checked bag.

The only thing that trumped this was a completely separate incident where I found myself staring at a coffin waiting out in the bag handlers’ area while the planes were getting loaded up.  I was hoping desperately the coffin wasn’t going to be loaded on my plane.  AUGH.  I still don’t know where that one ended up…

Anyway, by the time we arrived at BWI, the plane shuttled at top speed to the gate.  As the announcements wrapped up, the pilot reiterated what a privilege it was for him to be able to deliver the gift of sight to someone who needed it that day.  

As you enjoy this wonderful spring, and see the beauty of green roofs exploding out of dormancy into various greens, reds, and flowers, keep in mind how fortunate we are with what we have!!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dot your "Eggs" and cross your Ts!

I thought I’d deviate during this month’s post.  One of the intents of the blog is to share my experiences during green roof construction and design.  Another is to dive into how I’ve had to deal with the other aspects of selling and maintaining roofs- the marketing and PR.  Since green roofs were such a hit (and they still are, but with a bit less star power) I would get caught up in their drama at times too!  
We had a customer who had recently installed a green roof.  I was up for a routine maintenance visit and noticed some waterfowl had created a nest, and the mother was protecting it closely.  I was thrilled!  This is one of the interesting things about green roofs- they will create biodiversity whether the building owner wants it or not.  It’s just nature finding its niche.  I called up the local paper thinking this would be a great story!  They wrote a brief article and posted it in the paper the same week.  From my perspective, it seemed I had done a great thing to promote green roofs in the area- especially because this roof was not accessible. 

I was wrong.
I got a phone call from the PR department, very upset that the public was now aware of this nest.  (Ironically, the PR folks didn’t know about the green roof before the article printed.)  The building was an aquarium (and again, I was thinking they would enjoy the environmental stewardship promo).  However, there was threat of avian flu at the time, and they were more concerned about protecting the animals in the building than the waterfowl nesting on their roof. In fact, the facility manager was so mad about the waterfowl (possibly harboring disease) they decided to remove the nest and the mother.  Not good PR from their perspective.  And I shouldn’t have opened my mouth.  Lesson learned.  Get permission from the owner first before promotion. 
Realistically, that really made me mad- not at the facility manager specifically- but the situation.  Why would they install a green roof if they didn’t fully understand what could, and would, happen?  And who is “THEY” anyway?   Who was supposed to understand the bio-diversity perspective, the cost for maintenance, and how maintaining the roof may affect water quality.  Clearly, the decisions made about installing the green roof up front did not involve all people who would have to “deal” with it.  That’s a scary reality that is, unfortunately, common.

In Europe, the mindset is very different from American's idea of how green roofs should function.  They often design to create habitat for specific wildlife.  
Eventually, after our maintenance term was up, the facility manager decided a staff horticulturist could handle the green roof maintenance.  Problem was, the individual had experience in maintaining tropical plants.  (Same thing applies for me- just because I’m a horticulturist doesn’t mean I could take over a rainforest ecosystem!)   I am not sure if the green roof is thriving.  A couple years ago I read another article boasting this new maintenance they are doing on their own.   I suppose the aquarium wanted this PR.  However, it looked fairly weedy and the article was very general in nature.  Hm.  

The coolest thing about maintaining the roof was its accessibility.  The aquarium building had tight security as one would expect.  But, to get to the roof, I needed to be escorted behind the scenes.  That’s right!  The animal cages, small aquariums, and scientists working under florescent lights.  The tanks of living prey kept alive for feeding time for the predator species on display.  The “replacement” species- I guess they need to make sure they always have enough frogs and goldfish on display at all times, haha.   A security guard over time took a liking to me, and gave me the grand tour one afternoon.  If you ever get a chance, take someone up on the “behind the scenes” of a building, or exhibit, or even an art gallery.  You never know what you may discover! 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Next week we welcome SPRING!  Yes.  As a horticulturist, it’s always an exciting time to see what is emerging from the depths of dormancy.  For a green roofer, this is also the time building owners often call, worried that their system may not come back…. It may change a bit from year to year, but plants always come back.

Change can be scary for someone who may not fully understand the seasonal effect on green roofs.  The last snow melt brings to surface brown and dark red landscapes and some bare patches on the growing media.  Turbulent spring storms challenge many designs, but they usually prove to recharge the vegetated roof systems.  The overburden further protects the roof systems below from hail.  The first signs of summer droughts remind us that our supplement irrigation plans may need to be explored, and that the plants were selected to withstand the maximum and minimum temperatures!  By the time heat breaks in the Fall, green roofs thrive again as if they just realized they made it through the worst of Mother Nature’s offerings that year.  The first snowfall covers the landscape, people wonder if their roof will survive, when in fact snow is the ideal protector from minimum temperatures.   

So much happens in Spring.  Customers tend to forget about maintenance until there is a problem, and then we scurry around in April to get the contracts signed.  I wish it wasn’t this way, but it always is.  Winter weeds were left alone, and now additional pressure to get them pulled before they propagate.  Ordering fertilizers and pre-emergent for all types of roofs requires some time and thought.  

Installation contracts work their way back up the priority pile, and submittals need to be pulled to order materials.  My fellow soil blenders and growers are equally busy, so sending purchase orders becomes critical…. In other words, the phone keeps ringing and emails start flying.

In the Northern climates, neighbors crawl out of the woodwork and start outdoor work.  We evaluate what, if any, ice and snow damage had on our gutters.  My personal community garden gets started.  All the seeds have arrived, and we set up a production line to sew the flats.  My neighbor has grow lights and racks in her basement (for veggie garden purposes only, we swear!)   The spring bulbs in my boulevard plots start peering out of the cold soil.    

Days get longer because we get busier!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bronx, Part 2

Green roof installations take a lot of planning- just like with any construction project.  The efficiencies that I saw from proper project management also led to profitable outcomes.  However, one of the biggest challenges that any contractor (and manufacturer, quite honestly) faces is AFTER then installation.  

When green roofs are installed in early summer, the plant material has to be maintained with more attention than if they were planted in late fall.  The possibility of high temperatures with limited natural rain events makes me anxious to get up there and irrigate.  There is a fine balance here, because I want the plants to acclimate so they are not reliant on anything supplemental, but they do need to live.  

In the case of the Bronx project, we had a problem getting water from inside the building to the roof.  And once we did get water, there was not enough pressure to water across the entire roof area.  So, we rigged up a fire hose from a bathroom and through a door.  We also brought up a pump booster.  I hauled Netafim drip tube from Baltimore- that would have been easier than trying to find it locally.  But it WORKED!  We had water for the summer time.

As I mentioned, the Courthouse was across from Yankee Stadium.  As with many rooftops in NYC, the views are amazing and you can pick out signature landmarks no matter where you were.  Perhaps the scurry to get the irrigation working on the roof drew attention to the fact that this roof was somewhat accessible.  Late one afternoon, a group of firemen came out and climbed a ladder to a penthouse roof and took some amazing photos with the green roof and all of NYC in the background.  But I was mostly focused on the iconic firemen.  Haha

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Bronx, Part 1

January 8 2013

Happy New Year! May 2013 bring exciting and challenging changes to your life.  It certainly has already for me!

One of the most enjoyable, successful, well rounded projects I was involved in was the Bronx County Courthouse.  Having recently moved from Harlem to Maryland back in 2006, I was still very familiar with the Bronx.  In fact, my apartment building supervisor saw me running, one day as he told me later, and he wondering to himself, “What a crazy white woman would be running in the Bronx?”  Unfortunately, this trip was not for leisurely running, or checking out a local band, or even hanging out at the park with friends.  
Afternoon shade, 1 year old!

Our pre-construction meeting was pretty entertaining.  We had project managers, site supervisors (NJ Union roofers) running around, BOEDC funders, and the design team.   The first thing we had to work through was fixing the leaky roof above the judges’ chambers.  We were guaranteed NOTHING was going to happen until they were happy… and stayed dry.
The roof was already aging, but the desire to install a 10,000 sf green roof on a concrete deck, with 10’ parapet walls was an ideal pilot project that had been fully funded.  The building was a very active County Courthouse and was located across from the old Yankee Stadium.  We only had access on weekends and when the Yankees were playing Away.  There were 2 weekends in June selected for installation. 

The owner’s rep from BOEDC was very involved, even wanting to plant plugs right along side us.  She was generally interested and had lobbied for the project long before we were the selected contractor.  She was also interested in the maintenance and the success of the roof, so we stayed involved with each other for many months after we completed the project.

While the security guards were meant to be intimidating, I found them to be quite nice and friendly over time, and some were even curious about what we were doing there.  The first part of the installation was laying out the root barrier, protection, drainage, and filter fabrics, creating the perimeters and craning up soil.  I’ll admit the craning was pretty fantastic- we had a permit to close off the block and the crane had to reach 100’+ feet up and over.  

And, while I thought the craning was pretty awesome, I’ll admit I was more entertained by our crews!  All the stereotypes of the NJ and NY construction crews- yelling at each other, friendly loud swearing banter, and generally on time for work and their breaks- were all true!  We also had a Hispanic crew that worked in a very different way- quiet, small chit chat, and working hard until they were done.  What a dynamic!  I don’t know that any crew members cared about what we were doing (specifically for the greater good of Greening the Bronx) but they were there to get paid and be efficient to get the job done.  

The NJ guys gave me the nickname of Martha Stewart on the first day I was able to swap my construction hat for a sun hat.  I should have guessed they would make fun of me for wearing it, and when I find a photo of my awesome hat, I will post it!  BTW, that name stuck on every roof we worked on in the future.  When I’d show up to a site I would hear someone yelling, “Yo, Hey Look! Martha Stewart’s back!”   Some guys questioned how they were “supposed to plant those F#$’ing flowers” but I gained their respect overtime.  I took the responsibility for driving a full crew cab truck from the Bronx through Washington Heights while following the site super towards the interstate into NJ.  That was a tight fit.  Oh, and I had to communicate using a Nextel direct connect… “10-4 Good Buddy!”

Part 2 of this story begins with me bringing up over 100’ of Netafim irrigation hose on Amtrak from Baltimore and squeezing on the #4 subway during the NYC rush hour…And meeting hot NYC firemen.  But, you will have to wait for it :)