Green Rooftops: lobby-worthy or common sense?

Last week our group visited several green rooftops around Grounds: Nau/Gibson Hall, Garrett Hall, the Commerce School, and the hospital (including the site for the hospital’s next green rooftop construction project). As we begin to study the ecology of these unique architectural features, we cannot help but wonder what incentivizes them in the first place. In an ideal world, every building would be LEED Gold certified and topped with lush greenery. Yet cost, convenience, and simple consideration seem to impede this goal. In addition to learning about these roofs on the micro-level, it is important for us to consider what incentives spark the implementation of green rooftops.

Upon speaking with the Facilities Management Staff of the UVa hospital, we were able to gain a different perspective on the rooftops. John Rainey led us through the air duct room of the hospital and onto the hospital’s next green rooftop site. On a rainy Friday morning, it was easy to see one of the roof’s main concerns: water. Mr. Rainey explained to us the challenge of storm water management on flat rooftops, noting that even though architects implemented patterned drainage measures under the impermeable plastic-like roofing material, it was to little avail. Even in a light drizzle, puddles dotted the rooftop. After mentioning the water retention issues, Mr. Rainey gestured across the street, mentioning plans for a completely new building fitted with a green rooftop. This building’s roof aims to simulate a natural landscape, complete with rolling “hills” and varying flora. He mentioned that as the roof we were standing on had low visibility to patient rooms, the new building would provide calming views to a much larger proportion of the hospital’s residents.

What made the hospital consider installing a green rooftop on the low-visibility roof? Was it motivated by the storm water problem, benefits to the few patients who could see it, future cost considerations, or a combination? What about the new building? Was it assumed that a new building would implement green technology or did it require lobbying? While the advantages are obvious to the environmentally-minded students of Cities+Nature, how much consideration does the general public give them?

The answers to these questions likely vary across different projects; evident by the diversity in the projects themselves. Some projects may be implemented for necessity (storm water retention on the hospital), some for aesthetic appeal (Garrett Hall’s green “rooftop” sits above the basement and doubles as a patio), and the list goes on. The key here, however, is using policy to effectively encompass these reasons and incentivize them. Federal legislation under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides tax credit for green rooftops of up to $1.80, LEED Gold certification is necessary for all new federal building construction projects, and the EPA has proposed storm water regulations that encourage green roof design. City governments offer market incentives (subsidies, tax credits, etc.) and regulatory measures (permits, building ordinances, etc.) to encourage lush building tops.

The study of green rooftops doesn’t limit itself to bee bowls or malaise traps. Throughout our documentation of the roofs around Grounds, it is important to remember that someone lobbied for their implementation. Whether Facilities Management can better manage the roof’s drainage, energy bills decrease, or the environmental sciences department can sleep well at night, green rooftops include a host of stakeholders. Effective policymaking will highlight the benefits and mitigate the costs of these features to increase their prevalence.

Post by Mary Kathryn Fisher, Second-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning