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May 14, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Simple Truths About Grass Roofs


Flat parties are missing something. They have the awful alcohol; the top 20 tunes. But the location is depressing. You clamber inside the flat, precariously positioning yourself on the edge of the sofa. Occasionally you may awkwardly move onto the roof to bathe in the last glows of the sun but even this is deceptively awful. The roof will be painful, hot and barren. You sit there pretending to be enjoying yourself – making jokes and listening to stories when all that is on your mind is just how sore your bottom is; how you can’t wait to leave and hurry home; how the cramp in your leg would be great to stretch out but for the fact that you would then fall off the roof. It is not a good time.

I have a solution for your travails. It is a sensation, which has hit everywhere from New York to London to Berlin to Chicago. Put grass on your roof: or flowers or herbs or vegetables or a mesclun of the above. Grass roofs balance the aesthetic desires of a compact urban landscape with the need for environmental action. It is also great for parties.

Roofs until now were uninhabitable wastelands. National Geographic writer Verlyn Klinkenborg opined that “the urban roofscape is a little like hell—a lifeless place of bituminous surfaces, violent temperature contrasts, bitter winds, and an antipathy to water.” We have for generations sought to beautify our buildings and spaces – decorating, designing, colouring, yet until now, the roof, as an area of use rather than shelter has escaped our keen architectural eyes.

Grass roofs are flat and equipped with a special waterproof membrane that protects the house from the thick, insulating layer of soil, compost and grass. Using wild flower or grass acts an important filter for the water it traps. It reduces the need for inefficient and expensive storm water runoff systems. The grass and flowers absorb and store water whilst letting some off, now filtered and fresh to use again. It insulates houses. A thick layer of soil keeps heat in your house far better than any corrugated iron.

Wellington is lucky to have many large open spaces. However, in an ever expanding and populating world, cities are becoming denser – more compact; neighbours are through the wall rather than over the fence. Making use of the space above our heads is just commonsense. It is a place to relax, read, drink and languish.

Roofs are also now being used as vegetable gardens. The locavore revolution has facilitated both boutique restaurants and even larger scale operations to flourish on city roofs. Zibbibo restaurant in Wellington grows herbs and salad leaves in recycled dishwashers racks on the roof–only accessible through a hatch at the top of the ceiling.

In most countries the green roof revolution has grown organically. However, in some nations, such as Switzerland, where building regulation even picks your wallpaper, grass roofs are compulsory on any new flat roof. It has made for remarkable urban scenes and a lot more angled roofs.

Wellington architect John Mills suggested that grass roofs may be more difficult to construct in earthquake-prone Wellington, with earthquake regulation compliance becoming increasingly onerous. Having your garden fall on top of you would not be ideal. That problem may mean compulsory grass roofs for Wellington would not be the best of government decisions, but it remains an attractive choice for those looking to make better use of available space in an environmentally beneficial way.

Grass roof make for a more livable urban landscape, with environmental kudos to match. Make your parties cooler: force your landlord to grass your roof. ▲


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