The White Stuff: Shedding Some Light On NYC’s Cool Roofs Program

They don’t have the aesthetic appeal of green roofs, but white roofs are great at saving energy. So why aren’t they everywhere yet?

Trollishness, I’ve found, is the bane of this green building blogging thing. Which shouldn’t be confused with negativity — having even a low-wattage megaphone more or less demands deployment against New Domino-ian offenses against decency (or, you know, just against New Domino itself). And not trollishness in the nasty-Facebook-comment variety, which is easy enough to avoid unless you’re a 13-year-old boy. I mean trollishness as an outlook — the kind of peevish, impatient, why-will-everyone-not-get-with-the-program mentality that is the number one gateway drug for ill-reasoned, hard-to-read posts. If you’re reading this blog, then you are probably already convinced that building green is a good idea in about a dozen different ways, and that green real estate is likely to 1) make NYC a better place to live and 2) make smart people a lot of money in the process. Theoretically, you’re a choir that would not be unreceptive to preaching. But that’s not the point, or at least it’s not the point that I’d like to make. But man, are white roofs ever a topic that it’s hard for me not to get trollish on.

The failure of green roofs to catch on in New York City is something I’ve written my bleeding heart out about in the past, but I get it — they’re expensive and heavy and maybe don’t work all that well. But the slowness with which white roofs — that is, roofs treated with reflective white paint — have caught on here and elsewhere is much harder to understand, and much harder to accept in that sort of people-being-people way. A green roof seems less transcendent when you’re footing the bill for it and worrying about it caving in your ceiling — reasonable enough. But when a day’s worth of work and a minimal cost outlay can deliver eye-popping savings and impressive results at both the macro and micro scale, it becomes harder to understand why white roofs haven’t caught on as quickly or as broadly as they obviously ought.

I mean, it is understandable, at a certain level. White roofs lack the design cache and LEED Brain pleasure principle hit of a more show-offy green measure — I happen to think they look pretty cool, but if you’re the sort of person who wants to show off something green on the roof of your home, the current trend is definitely more towards a goofy wind turbine or a kinda-sorta meaningful array of solar panels. And there’s also the troublesome matter of white roofs not being especially lucrative — this is good for homeowners and building management types and such, who can reduce the heat of their roofs by 50 or 60 degrees and cut heating bills by double-digit percentages with a couple of long-handled paint rollers, some reflective paint, and a few hours of work. But short of developing new and better and more reflective varieties of paint — some entrepreneur, somewhere, is doubtless on this case — the profit potential of white roofs¬† has nothing on the high-margin luxury greenstuffs that currently makes money in the green building material market. Without the push of an industry behind it, sadly, action from the state — and thus action in general — is going to be slower. It’s gross and sad that this is the case, but if someone with money isn’t lobbying for a tax credit for painting a roof white, we’re not going to have one, regardless of how well white roofs work. And so it is that we currently don’t While Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu deserves credit for plugging white roofs at every turn, a little bit of government pump-priming would be a lot more meaningful. That also applies at the state and local level, as certainly seems to be the case with New York City’s agonizingly slow-rolled NYC Cool Roofs program.

“In New York, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blessing, the Department of Buildings and other public and private groups have vowed to paint 1 million square feet of roof on city-sponsored community buildings,” the AP’s Sean O’Driscoll writes in the Washington Post. “Organizers have advertised on Craigslist for volunteers, promising that the painting is rewarding and fun… New York’s 1 million square feet of white roofs is a ‘very, very, very, conservative target,’ said [Berkeley National Laboratory fellow Hashem] Akbari, who advised the city on its NYC Cool Roofs project. ‘When you consider that a large box store or mall can have a roof of 200,000 square feet, the entire New York program is the equivalent of painting five of those stores,’ he said.”

Consider that Arizona — which, as terrifyingly, Thunderdome-caliber retrograde though it is, cannot afford to trifle with its heating bills — has made white roofs mandatory on all state buildings. Consider that New York City’s plan is to whitewash, citywide, a swath of rooftop roughly equivalent in size to the roof area of Paramus, NJ’s Garden State Plaza. And then you try not getting trollish.

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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6 Responses to The White Stuff: Shedding Some Light On NYC’s Cool Roofs Program

  1. Anne Whitacre Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    The deal with white roofs — is that they don’t work that well either. From a design professional’s perspective, let’s look at them:
    1) first of all, they don’t stay white for very long. A white roof generally requires the owner to mandate a roof cleaning program and schedule — over and above the “take the twigs out of the drains” schedule, but an actual “hose the roof off” schedule to keep the roof white. This wastes water and manpower. And, once the roof gets dirty, you might as well have a grey roof, or some other color, because its not white anymore. (ie, you lose the “benefit” of the white roof within one season, typically)
    2) White roofs, while LEED recommended, aren’t alwasy appropriate for northern climate locations. New York may be on the borderline of where they are cost effective, but in some locations, there is a greater heating cost than cooling cost. The white roof helps the cooling cost.
    3) The actual roof membrane — the stuff that covers the roof and keeps the rain out — is a black membrane that is stretchy. There is no comparable white membrane, so in order to get a white roof, you have to take a black membrane and cover it with a white thing. This often means that if you want a 60 mil thick roof membrane, you will get 30 or 40 mils of black stuff and then 30 or 20 mils of white stuff. The white stuff isn’t as stretchy or flexible (or cohesive) as the black stuff, so you’re essentially making the productive part of your roof thinner in order to make roof for the pretty part. If you want the full 60 mils of black functional roof with a white coating over it, then you get a 90 mil roof, which almost no one makes, and its a lot more expensive (and heavier) than a 60 mil roof. So essentially, in order to get a “nice white ” roof, you decrease the roof membrane quality.
    I’m not going to say that a white roof is a dumb idea — but its not always a cost effective idea, and it tends to be more theoretically good in some climates than functionally good. This is a prime example of the LEED one-size-fits-all prescriptive approach that doesn’t fit all.
    As for the “white paints” for the roof — this IS a dumb idea and not worth the consideration in a legitimate construction discussion.

  2. David Roth Monday, September 27, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    And THAT, right there, is how you leave a blog comment. Thanks for that, Anne — I’m not a design professional or roof expect or anything, really, but a sportswriter with a thing for insulation, so this is all intensely illuminating. I am curious, though, what you know about the possible future development of a “white membrane.” You’d think there would be a market there, and thus that something would be in development. Do you have anything to share on this?

  3. Christina Weigel Vescovo Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    Please join us on Wednesday, October 13th, 2010 to hear this issue discussed.

    Our company, Greensulate, is co-sponsoring a panel and networking event (catered + wine) with NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate and Cleantech Corridor on October 13th at Rosenthal Pavilion from 6:00PM to 8:30PM. The Rosenthal Pavilion is on the 10th Floor of the Kimmel Center.

    The primary focus of the evening is to discuss the use of and the incentives for white vs. green roofs, and to network with developers, architects, construction companies, and others.

    Tickets may be purchased at http://www.cleantechcorridor.org

  4. Anne Whitacre Friday, October 22, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    There are some white membranes in development, and some on the market — but the chemistry is different from the roof membranes we are more familiar with. And, if you consider that one of the more widely used membranes (TPO) didn’t even have production standards until 2002 or 2003 (I forget which) these are new membranes.
    There is another issue with white roofs though — in a cool climate, they lose heat quickly and become a cold surface. This may seem appropriate, right? no heat loss from the building? Well, every building has moisture in it, and it usually travels up with the heat. When that moisture hits the cold underside of the white membrane (or the insulation under the white membrane) it condenses, and then if it gets cold enough, it freezes again — and you get ice in your roof assembly. Exactly what you don’t want, especially in a cold climate. So, in some clmates the roofing manufacturers will no longer warranty their membranes. And remember — most of us who work in cold climates instinctively know that a black roof is a better membrane (and it turns white in the winter anyway when its snowed on) but we’re going with white because of Owner demands, often generated by LEED requirements. There are LEED ways to get around using the white roof — but in general, its not always a good idea.
    Construction is complicated. Blindly meeting one requirement often means that you’re causing unanticipated problems in some other area.

    • Peter in Downtown Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

      Anne,

      You make a number of good and solid points, but I am still unclear about the black roof working better in cold climates (NYC in the Winter). Basically, heat will travel through you roof in either direction, and its warmer inside (heating) than outside. Thus, if you theoretically could get heat through your black roof in the Winter, you’ll possibly loose a lot more heat from the building going out to the environment than you’ll gain. The reason is that the amount of heat in the form of sunlight (overall Watt/sf per day) in Winter is a smallish fraction of that we get in warm months (Summer). In the Summer, the temperature gradient is the opposite (hot outside, colder inside) and the energy from sunlight per sf a lot higher. Thus, a black roof then adds to the heat load of the building, increasing the need for AC.

      Thoughts, Comments?

      Thanks

      Peter

      • Anne Whitacre Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 12:54 am #

        sorry– I haven’t looked at this for a while.
        The manufacturers I’ve spoken with who all have an issue with a white membrane in a northern climate cite the condensation within the assembly as their biggest issue. You would have to run a dew point analysis on New York — New York may be at the dividing line. (New York may seem like a “northern city” but its about where the Oregon/California border is; Seattle is further north than most of the state of Maine). In Minnesota and the upper midwest, freezing in the assembly — especially with an R-35 or more in the roof — is a real possibility.

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