Above the treetops, lush grasses and ground covers flourish in downtown Raleigh, unsuspected by passers-by below.
The primary visitors to this roofscape retreat, aside from bumblebees, are a groundskeeper with his electric lawn mower, and the condominium residents who own this elevated urban oasis sprouting on a seventh-floor roof.
This garden was created by Baker Roofing, one of Raleigh's oldest companies in an industry that has been pummeled by the recession. Yet as interest in green buildings takes hold, roofing companies are looking to sustainable practices for a measure of relief.
Baker Roofing has been creating garden roofs for a decade and puts up a dozen light-reflecting roofs a week. Now the company is starting a sustainable practices division to capitalize on the growing demand for advanced roofing designs, especially in government and military construction contracts.
"If you're in the roofing business and you're doing government work, and you're not looking into garden roofing and renewable energy, you'll be left behind," said John Matthews, executive vice president of Baker Roofing. "We realized three years ago that sustainable building practices are going to be central to 21st century building practices."
The sustainable roof is an ancient concept getting updated for contemporary needs. Dozens of academic studies have set out to measure the benefits of sustainable roofs -- such as the reduction of energy costs up to 20 percent by reflective roofs, and the reduction in storm-water runoff up to 80 percent by garden roofs.
Another cited benefit: Sustainable roofs can counteract the urban "heat island" effect caused by the widespread replacement of tree canopies and meadows with asphalt and tar surfaces.
But roofing lags in a key aspect green building science: namely, tax credits and other financial incentives that are offered to promote conservation. At this point, only a handful of cities require sustainable roofing or have policies encouraging roof design for storm water management or energy conservation.
Cities that offer incentives for green roofing include Toronto, Chicago, Portland, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, but others are expected to follow as advances in roofing science gain currency among municipal planners, said Steven Peck, president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a 10-year-old nonprofit in Toronto.
North Carolina doesn't offer financial incentives specifically for roofing. But roofing designs, integrated with energy-efficient building construction, could be used to qualify for a federal tax credit that's available for commercial and residential buildings, said Donna Stankus, green building programs manager at the N.C. Solar Center in Raleigh.
Local interest is growing. Nearly 100 engineers, architects and contractors have taken courses on design and installation offered by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, according to the organization's Web site.
Baker Renewable Energy, the company's new division, will focus on garden roofs, reflective roofs and roofs outfitted with renewable energy resources such as solar power. The parent company, with about 1,000 employees in eight locations in North Carolina and Virginia, is regrouping after cutting 15 percent of its staff during the recession.
Baker increasingly depends on government and military contracting for its revenue, up from about 5 percent a few years ago to nearly a quarter today, a shift that has focused Baker on advanced roofing techniques.
"They're leading the trend in the Southeast for sure," said Emilio Ancaya, founder and owner of Living Roofs, an Asheville contractor that specializes in garden roofs. "It is a new wave."
Ancaya, who moved to Asheville from Raleigh last year, estimates there are at least 15 garden roofs in the Triangle, including UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and private homes.
Against the current
In the midst of a recession triggered by a real-estate collapse, roofers are in the first line of fire. Baker's focus on eco-roofing runs counter to the general roofing trend of cutting costs and getting by.
"Some roofing contractors are just fighting to stay alive right now and putting down whatever you ask for," said Gary Cattel, president of REI Engineers in Raleigh and past president of the Roof Consultants Institute, a trade group based in Raleigh. "The least competitive system does not include any sustainability considerations."
Baker was founded in 1915 as a tin shop by sheet metal craftsman William Baker, whose grandsons Prentiss and Frank run the company today. Baker is the largest roofer in the Southeast and the third-largest in the country. It has built roofs on such landmarks as the N.C. Legislative Building, Davis Library at UNC-Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
"We always thought there would be a finite amount of need for roofing services," said Frank Baker, the company's vice president and co-owner. "The only way you're going to increase your revenue stream is to increase your menu of services."
In July, Baker installed a garden roof with desert grasses and succulents on an addition at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. Church members wanted the second-floor roof to compensate for the green space they displaced by building the addition.
The 6,400-square-foot garden and patio, which have public access from the street, are structurally designed to support a crowd and can be used for wedding receptions and other gatherings. It cost about five times more to build than a standard roof, said Regina Parham, who chairs the church's design and construction committee.
"It's a contemplation space," Parham said. "It creates a park atmosphere."
At the Quorum Center
The seventh-floor garden roof at the Quorum Center in Raleigh is two years old and measures about 10,000 square feet. The entire structure is about 3 feet thick, including 6 inches of soil, an irrigation system, drainage canals and waterproof membranes.
The Quorum roof garden is not designed to support a large group of people, so it requires a conventional reinforcement system that a regular roof would need to support a heavy load of snow.
The garden added about $250,000 to the cost of the roof, said developer Ted Rey nolds. The motive for the roof was esthetic, since some units look out over the seventh-floor roof. Condos here can cost more than $1 million and are adorned with Brazilian cherry floors throughout and Calacatta marble in the bathrooms.
A living thing
Plantings feature drought-tolerant vegetation with shallow root systems: fountain grasses, dune sunflowers, goldenrod, pineapple sage and centipede grass. It requires the same amount of care and attention as a ground-level landscape, and if not properly watered or trimmed, it would become overrun with weeds.
"It's urban green space with a terrace," Matthews said. "You have to weed it and maintain it. It's a living thing."
The garden offers a view to about 20 condo tenants in upper floors, who look down on a garden instead of a blacktop. Two condos on the seventh floor open out into the garden, including the unit that belongs to state Sen. Tony Rand. The roof garden features geometric patterns fashioned with river stone.
"It's in keeping with the type of building that we built," Reynolds said. "Some residents say, 'That's our little golf course out there.' "
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