Where Have All The Flowers Gone: Why Have Green Roofs Not Caught On In New York City?

They’re about as beautiful a manifestation of green building as exists, and benefit from a generous tax credit. So why aren’t green roofs catching on in New York City?

At first glance, green roofs seem to offer one of the most thorough and aesthetically pleasing marriages of green building form and content in the entire pantheon of green building techniques. Dorks like me will always love our insulation, and trendoid LEED Brain spendaholics will brag on their rooftop wind turbine, but green roofs manage to bridge that gap by offering a host of sustainability benefits while also looking pretty spectacular. The biggest green roof in New York City, for instance — or at least the biggest green roof that doesn’t aspire to being a farm — is this one, atop the Morgan Mail Processing Facility on 28th Street, which Preston Koerner profiled at Jetson Green. Click the link and you’ll see something that looks more like a lovelier-than-average park than it does like a grassy roof, and which is about as awesome a workplace perk as I can imagine. (At least until they invent a coffee machine that also dispenses scotch and flattery, which I assume is in the works and hope gets Energy Star certification) But considering that green roofs are probably the most beautiful non-architectural manifestation of green building that we’ve yet seen, and that New York City has worked hard to incentivize green roof construction with a property tax credit of up to $100,000, it’s both baffling and kind of sad that green roofs just aren’t catching on in New York City.

“In New York City — where lawmakers and environmentalists had hoped the state green-roof law would make a major difference — the most popular vegetated roofs are atop schools and government buildings,” Nathanial Gronewold writes at E&E News. “While no one can say for sure how many green roofs can be found in the city, all agree the number is puny. And while new building design and energy conservation standards are quickly spreading here, there seems to be no fervor for green roofs. What is catching on is a cheaper, less glamorous solution: whitewash coating the heat-absorbing tar to deflect the sun’s energy away from the building.”

It’s not surprising to hear all this, really. For one thing, whitewashing roofs is a really excellent idea and a very simple way to make a roof more efficient. It, too, has been incentivized pretty aggressively by Mayor Bloomberg and Con Edison, among others; there was a gbNYC post on this from a few months back that has not yet made it to the new, WordPress site. Furthermore, where green roofs are expensive and ambitious and (most importantly, structurally speaking) very heavy, a whitewashed roof delivers energy savings for the cost of one hard day’s work plus paint. It’s easy to do the cost-benefit analysis, here — the back of an envelope (while we’re breaking out the biz-speak cliches) isn’t even necessary. And yet what gets left out of that equation — what is inevitably left out of cost-benefit analyses, given that it’s unquantifiable — is the aesthetic grace and basic goodness of a green space on a rooftop. Green roofs offer much more of those harder-to-quantify benefits than do white ones — the Morgan Mail Processing Facility’s green roof is a show-stopper, but it has also helped cool the building, saved $2,000 a month in costs related to storm water runoffs, and doubled the roof’s life expectancy — but they also cost notably more. The Morgan Mail Processing Facility’s roof cost nearly $5 million to install. It’s still unclear just what kind of energy savings are conferred by a green roof, but going by the anecdotal example Gronewold cites of Con Ed’s green-roofed Long Island City facility, it’s considerable — Con Ed is claiming an 84 percent reduction in summer heat. Con Ed also claims a 67 percent reduction on white roofs. You see, probably, where this is heading.

I spend a lot of time here waiting and hoping and looking for signs of the market shifts that will — and I believe they will — eventually make green building and green retrofits and suchlike real and really profitable concerns. Already, green building costs are nearly equal to conventional methods, and it seems that we’re not far from the institutionalization of a more progressive approach to building both thanks to state action and the more compelling demands of the market. That’s a good sign, and a good thing. But in the case of green roofs, we may actually be seeing the incentives running in the direction we’re all more used to — away from the transcendent, that is, and back towards the mundane. Saving energy is a good idea, and people are going to want to do it — I believe that, and I believe that wish will become more widespread as the end-user costs of energy come more into line with its true cost. The problem for green roofs, though, is that while they may offer more energy savings than whitewashed roofs, they cost enough more that they’ll probably (and, I suppose, reasonably) be consigned to fringe-y status — something for rich people and ambitious municipal projects. Something, in short, of a “have you seen my lovely wind turbine?” showcase. The market could shift, of course, and change that. And green roofs will exist as long as people want to make the places in which they live and work both more beautiful and more efficient; in other words, forever. But if the market doesn’t catch up, then green roofs aren’t going to catch on. It’s going to make perfect sense, and it’s going to be a pity.

About David Roth

Since September of 2009, David Roth has served as the Managing Editor of gbNYC. David lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife, and is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Republic and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. You can contact David at droth11@gmail.com.

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gbNYC is a multi-disciplinary consulting and real estate services firm. In addition to representing office tenants and commercial buyers in leasing and acquisitions, we also provide innovative consulting solutions from a unique, green building perspective. We advise on green building financial incentives, comment on proposed green building marketing strategies, author white papers, treatises, and market analyses, organize seminars on the LEED process and professional accreditation, and provide advice and analysis on green building risk management and the overall state of green real estate, leasing, and construction, in New York City and beyond.

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6 Responses to Where Have All The Flowers Gone: Why Have Green Roofs Not Caught On In New York City?

  1. Anne Whitacre Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    The other, associated costs with green roofs are harder to pin down: who does the maintenance? Building maintenance guys usually aren’t gardeners, but then you have a plant/gardening service for a building that may have had none. at the very least, a low pressure sprinkler system may be necessary, or a guy on the roof with a hose. The thin systems will dry out faster, and even with moisture holding soil, this is an issue for them.
    The other issue is roof mainenance: the newer green roof systems are considerably easier to deal with than the IRMA systems of the 1970′s, but they still make roof membrane inspection and maintenance difficult — the tray systems are probably the easiest in this regard but they are less “field like” roof.
    I like the look of green roofs, too, but from the owner’s point of view, a white roof is a much easier maintenance issue — and even white roofs have to be cleaned every few months.

    • Christina Vescovo Thursday, May 27, 2010 at 11:33 am #

      Dear Anne:

      My company handles engineering and offers a maintenance warranty for our green roofs. You are correct that the majority of building maintenance or gardeners might not provide the level of service that we do.

      Furthermore, many conventional roofers do not have knowledge about how the systems should be properly installed or maintained. We can use irrigation or plants that do not require watering. In New York City rain is consistent throughout the year so this is not a concern.

      Thank you for your comment. Please see
      http://www.greensulate.com and send me your contact information at christina.vescovo@greensulate if you need any specific questions answered.

      Sincerely,

      Christina

  2. Dahlia Thompson Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    I suspect that cost is the main reason why green roofs have not caught on. The tax abatement is generous, but is only $4.50/sf of green roof, while the costs in NYC are in the range of $30/sf. The idea of the tax abatement is that in Germany, the heart of green roof development, the cost of green roofs are ~$5/sf, so the abatement would cover most of the cost if prices match those in Germany. However, its a bit of a Catch-22 – prices won’t go down until there is significant demand to bring about the equipment and trained workforce to install green roofs much more cheaply. But that demand won’t become widespread until costs go down.

  3. Jorg Breuning Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 5:58 am #

    In Germany the goal of all abatements or incentives was to make green roofs affordable. Once this technology is affordable and manageable over lifetime at competitive costs the cities can actually demand green roofs in building permits.
    Two years ago we helped Lancaster, PA to get awarded with grants from the State for green roof installations based on an incentive idea comparable to Stuttgart, Germany. Since then they gave incentives for over 50,000 sft of extensive green roofs and the installation costs dropped from around $18/sf to $8/sf at the same time. We also see a decrease in the maintenance costs since the systems are strating to perform.
    However maintenance costs also depend on the entire green roof design including details. The more experiments with no long term approved components (trays, plastic drainage boards etc.) or not certified products (i.e growing media, fertilizer), the more irrigation and the more design with selected plants the higher the maintenance costs. Keep it simple and avoid all the bells and whistles – which is hard when everybody is excited.
    Actually I guess that Lancaster, PA has the highest capita – green roof square foot ratio in the nation (1 sf extensive green roof per person).
    In Germany the goal of all abatements or incentives was to make green roofs affordable. Once this technology is affordable and manageable over lifetime at competitive costs the cities can actually demand green roofs in building permits.
    Two years ago we helped Lancaster, PA to get awarded with grants from the State for green roof installations based on an incentive idea comparable to Stuttgart, Germany. Since then they gave incentives for over 50,000 sft of extensive green roofs and the installation costs dropped from around $18/sf to $8/sf at the same time. We also see a decrease in the maintenance costs since the systems are strating to perform.
    However maintenance costs also depend on the entire green roof design including details. The more experiments with no long term approved components (trays, plastic drainage boards etc.) or not certified products (i.e growing media, fertilizer), the more irrigation and the more design with selected plants the higher the maintenance costs. Keep it simple and avoid all the bells and whistles – which is hard when everybody is excited.
    Actually I guess that Lancaster, PA has the highest capita – green roof square foot ratio in the nation (1 sf extensive green roof per person).

  4. Jorg Breuning Monday, June 7, 2010 at 4:13 am #

    In Germany the goal of all abatements or incentives was to make green roofs affordable. Once this technology is affordable and manageable over lifetime at competitive costs the cities can actually demand green roofs in building permits.
    Two years ago we helped Lancaster, PA to get awarded with grants from the State for green roof installations based on an incentive idea comparable to Stuttgart, Germany. Since then they gave incentives for over 50,000 sft of extensive green roofs and the installation costs dropped from around $18/sf to $8/sf at the same time. We also see a decrease in the maintenance costs since the systems are strating to perform.
    However maintenance costs also depend on the entire green roof design including details. The more experiments with no long term approved components (trays, plastic drainage boards etc.) or not certified products (i.e growing media, fertilizer), the more irrigation and the more design with selected plants the higher the maintenance costs. Keep it simple and avoid all the bells and whistles – which is hard when everybody is excited.
    Actually I guess that Lancaster, PA has the highest capita – green roof square foot ratio in the nation (1 sf extensive green roof per person).

  5. Aaron Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    It’s very unlikely that green roofs will ever be more than a fringe curiosity in New York City and the reasons are simple.

    The great majority of buildable flat roofs in NYC, particularly Brooklyn and Manhattan, are traditional three or four storey masonry buildings with a wood frame infill. These roofs barely hold up their own weight with snow load, indeed many roofs from the early last century are underbuilt, with the equivalent of 3×6′s so they sag from their repeated battle with winter. You simply cannot add tons of weight — a thin green roof with a minimal layer of sedum is at least 10 lbs sf — to these roofs, you effectively cannot add weight to them at all.

    The possibilities for green roofs in the city are most open in terms of new construction. And fro retrofitting, the considerable weight of a green roof is most plausible for existing cast-concrete framed industrial buildings, that can handle the live load. But these two categories are a fairly tiny sliver of the city’s building stock.

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