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Sky Gardens ~
Travels in Landscape Architecture

By Linda S. Velazquez, ASLA Associate, Publisher

September 2003  Sky Gardens ~

The Statue of Liberty

New York City, NY.  New York has always held special interest to me because it's so vibrant with life - so much to do and see at all times of the year. One of the many benefits of working for the airlines is personal travel, and aside from the many times I've had layovers here - where we've shopped till we dropped along Canal Street and at Bloomingdale's and then dined at sumptuous delis and restaurants - I've also ventured to New York with family for parties; school campus visits; shows; sightseeing; and speaking engagements. I have  presented at IBM's Watson Research Center in White Plains in 2001 and the Earth Pledge Foundation, when I was asked to speak at their green roof initiative symposium inauguration in June 2002, and last March when I attended a greenroof plant seminar.

New York and New Yorkers have been called many things, but one thing's for sure - they are unique, they are survivors, and they love their city and open spaces! You can't beat Christmas in the City with all the spectacular decorations and window displays, or Rockefeller Center in full swing. Spring is a joy to behold strolling along in Central Park observing the sights of sounds of people and nature, and summer is a great time to take in a show, museum, or attend a sporting event. As the leaves turn color and the weather starts to cool, autumn signals the promise of change in the air - and a perfect chance to enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride and explore this multi-faceted city.

The memory of September here, in Washington D.C. and in Pennsylvania will never be the same, of course, after 911. As citizens of the world, we all relate and sympathize personally in different ways; as a flight attendant, I related to the horrific events on one particular level. But when the call was made for the World Trade Center site redesign, as an ecological designer I experienced the realization that here was an opportunity for New York to honor and immortalize our people lost by designing a sacred place that embodied the very essence of human nature: life itself. By designing with nature as the key element, a living, breathing landscape would reassure future generations by gently changing with the seasons. Even the harshest, cruelest winters eventually melt into spring with the promise of rebirth, reminding us of loved ones and a brighter future.

Greening Ground Zero

Photo Source:

The approved Ground Zero memorial certainly has lovely elements of nature in the design... and I may be biased, but I would love to see greenroofs integrated within the built environment, so that people at various levels within the structure can look out and experience the beauty and movement of life.

See more of Studio David Libeskind's World Trade Center redesign at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's website.  Along these lines, also read about the "Green Ground Zero Sustainable Design Competition" at Upcoming Events. Green Ground Zero - "The First Buildings of the Rest of Our Lives" is a project of Green House Network coordinated by New York Climate Rescue, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable develop- ment in Lower Manhattan.

On September 4th, William McDonough, visionary green architect and Cradle to Cradle author, will give the keynote address at Pace University to launch Green Ground Zero's Sustainable Design Competition for Lower Manhattan. Leslie Hoffman, Earth Pledge's Executive Director, will serve on the design selection committee headed by architect Randy Croxton.

Ecological Design in the 1800's

Frederick Law Olmstead, the "Father of Landscape Architecture," along with Calvert Vaux designed Central Park as a natural refuge and means of escape from the drudgery of city life.  Their 1858 "Greensward Plan" - the design for Central Park -  was a master plan for the first major park intended entirely for public use, and over 25 million people visit the Park every year.  See photos, learn about history, conservation efforts,  tour information and much more at the Central Park Conservancy, the private, not-for-profit organization that manages Central Park under a contract with the City of New York/Department of Parks and Recreation.

Central Park in spring, photo Central Park Conservancy

Central Park and View of Belvedere Castle, from

Early New York Roof Gardens

Rockefeller Center Greenroofs

Rockefeller Center, Courtesy The Garland Co.

New Yorkers enjoyed the beauty and recreation of Central Park year round, so many New York theaters and restaurants followed suit and boasted roof gardens since the early 1900's.

For example, the five roof gardens perched atop the 7th floor of Rockefeller Center have been in existence since the mid 1930's and continue to provide greenspace and a welcome, visual respite from the norm of dreary asphalt and tar roofs.

The August 28-September 4, 2003 Time Out New York magazine includes the Rockefeller rooftop gardens in their feature article, "Secret gardens - Discover the hidden worlds above NYC."  The feature mentions eight brief examples of private  hidden roof spaces of memorials, public buildings, decks, garden terraces, and intensive greenroofs.  Counting the Rockefeller's five greenroofs as one example, perhaps only two other projects noted would count as an intensive greenroof - The Towers in Brooklyn and a Japanese Teahouse Garden in Manhattan.

A Heart of Green for the Big Apple

Earth Pledge Greenroof, Photo from

The Earth Pledge Foundation Greenroof

Although NYC is known for its skyscrapers and seemingly endless array of concrete canyons, sustainable design has always been important to many people here, and a large number of environmental designers, projects, and organizations are including greenroofs as a design element in the planning of a greener New York.

Earth Pledge (EP) is devoted to sustainable design, architecture and cuisine and is but one of the many wonderful NY organizations involved in greening efforts. According to Earth Pledge's mission statement, "Earth Pledge identifies and promotes innovative techniques and technologies that restore the balance between human and natural systems. Through education, research, and implementation we deliver viable models to government, industry, and communities. The New York region is our laboratory for implementing replicable solutions that will inspire and facilitate a global transition to sustainability. " Please read the upcoming Guest Feature Article from EP's Green Roof Initiative Director Colin Cheney about their many programs and initiatives, and read about their greenroof in The Greenroof Projects Database here.

New York's Metropolis Magazine is offering $10,000 for a green idea or design.  The Metropolis Next Generation Prize was established to recognize and encourage the talent of today's rising stars in design. The cash prize of $10,000 will be awarded to an enterprising individual or office who's Big Design Idea will benefit people and the environment, and will challenge design professionals to create human-centered products, environments, and communication systems.

The Call for Entries deadline is December 15, 2003 and late entries will be accepted with a fee - see for details.

The Greenroofing of Gotham

I interviewed a handful of local architects and designers for their experiences and  opinions on overcoming barriers to greenroof construction.  Following are their comments and a few of the numerous current and planned projects in the works in NY; expect to read more in-depth about each in's Projects database soon:

Balmori & Associates, a landscape design firm, designed the Earth Pledge Foundation greenroof and is currently developing the Long Island (Green) City Project (LIC) in partnership with the Pratt Institute and Earth Pledge. The goal is to turn LIC into a model of green development including rooftop greening on industrial sites and extensive park creation.  Also, Balmori Associates and Cesar Pelli & Associates are designing 20 River Terrace - the country’s first green high-rise apartment building which will include a large rooftop garden.

Richard Dattner & Partners Architects is working on two greenroof projects in NY and Queens: Queens Library and Hudson River Park.

David Bergman, Architect is working on a project that is a former tenement, now condominium, walkup in the Lower East Side.  As an owner in the building and a member of the condo's board, so it has become his "mission" to include some green roof aspects in the process of undertaking a roof and facade renovation project for entire building.

In the process of researching the project, David found that virtually no attention has been paid to his type of structure, which is a predominant type in NY - a low rise brick building with wood joists. This type of building cannot take the weight of even extensive green roofs over an entire roof without serious structural work.

Eldridge Roof Garden Layout

Eldridge Roof Garden Sketch
Prototype, Courtesy David Bergman

According to David, he has "come up with a design that (1) takes into account the existing roof structure, (2) provides a tangible amenity to the residents and (3) is relatively affordable. The plan places lightweight removable sedum planters, interspersed with some heavier bushes, along the perimeter of the roof where the structure can best take the weight. Then in the middle, we will place recycled plastic lumber decking, which both protects the roofing and is removable for repairs. The planters are also removable per NYC code requirements. With the shallow planters, the thought is that residents could plant herbs or other sedums as they desired.

While this is not as much green coverage as one would like for a green roof, it is an achievable prototype that could be readily applied to many buildings - buildings which occupy a large percentage of the city's roof area."  Construction will start as soon as the waterproofing is completed.

Big Sue LLD, Susan Boyle, is developing two green roofs as part of a larger “green renovation” of a warehouse/single residence in Brooklyn.  Big Sue is the general contractors on the job, and worked with Katrin Scholz-Barth Consulting on the design.  Big Sue read about greenroofs for the first time in the Earth Pledge book Sustainable Architecture White Pages.  From that point they started talking to friends in the planning and architecture fields to learn more, and now plan on integrating green roofs wherever possible in future projects.

The Crown Heights Brooklyn warehouse building is brick construction and was built in the 1880's as an ice house for a brewery.  Both roof areas are designed as extensive greenroofs. The smaller of the two has a 4" growth media depth with an area of approximately 900 sf and is accessible to one of the residential units in the building. T he larger greenroof is located on is a sloped roof and will have a 2" growth media depth and will not be accessible - but will be seen by hundreds of people a day as they ride by on an elevated section of the subway line.

Big Sue feels that so far the biggest hurdle has been coming up with the best, most cost effective design.  "There are a bunch of set designs out there but if your case is slightly unique or you are doing the project on a tight budget (or both, as in our case) and want to install as much of the roof yourself as possible, you really have to do A LOT of research," shares Susan Boyle.  "There needs to be more people out there with the knowledge to come up with different designs for different scenarios. I think this is starting to happen, as interest in greenroofs grows, and more brands are putting more of the materials on the market and making them available in the U.S.  This activity creates more competition - helping to bring costs down."

Big Sue believes with so many benefits to installing greenroofs, it seems inevitable that they will become more widespread.  Local governments need to be educated about how green roofs can improve their city's quality of life and their bottom line.  Once that happens the financial incentives should follow.

Chroma is a design studio headed by Alexis Briski and has recently completed a small intensive greenroof atop a commercial office building in NYC on Maiden Lane.  Don Sussman of Town and Gardens was the contractor for the "green" portion of the roof; A + T Ironworks fabricated and installed the fence; and JB Construction completed the rest.

Surplus brick from the building's facade renovation was used to build new garden walls that match the existing parapet walls. The existing bituminous roof remained untouched; garden walls were built on the existing roof with additional layers of built bitumen placed as buffers.  The new raised concrete floor tiles are punctuated with three rectangular grass fields, each with its own internal spray head watering and drainage system.  The total depth of the garden beds is 24" with the bottom 6-8" used for drainage.  Drain Away drainage mats were used and the growing medium is composed of peat moss, bark composite and perlite, totaling 15" on average.

Maiden Lane East View

Maiden Lane Greenroof by Chroma;  Photo by Adam Friedberg

This design evolved from the owner's decision to develop a tenant amenity on the east roof of a 1950's office building.  According to the designer Alexis Briski, "the view of the neighboring skyscrapers, the East River and sunshine were the inspiration for this design. I wanted to create a serene and pristine place that people could enjoy the view of the river, the sky and fresh air while conducting business or perhaps eating their lunch."  White epoxy coated steel furniture from Landscape Forms and a white perimeter handrail complete the pristine setting while an occasional stray dandelion brings the spontaneity of nature to the otherwise ordered rooftop.

Maiden Lane South View

Maiden Lane Greenroof Source:;
Photo by Adam Friedberg

Fox and Fowle Architects is working on two projects in NYC: the Helena, a large residential tower for Douglas Durst, one of NYC’s largest developers; and the Calhoun School, a private school that Earth Pledge is working with to design their roof as a model of a "teachable" greenroof.  Fox and Fowle Architects first worked with greenroofs as they developed the sustainable guidelines for residential and commercial development at Battery Park City, NY, and feel that most people interested in greenroof technology see this is a win-win idea.

Now under construction, The Helena, an environmentally responsible, 38-story apartment building, is located on the northwest corner of West 57th Street and 11th Avenue on Manhattan's West Side. Designed using knowledge gained developing the Battery Park City residential guidelines, high-performance technologies such as black water treatment, high-efficiency equipment, and green roofing are integrated into the building. The project is applying for a silver LEED™ rating and will be the first wholly private development of its type at that level. The green roof chosen for The Helena is an extensive roofscape, chosen for its low-to-no maintenance and capability to withstand potentially harsh growing conditions.

Click on the thumbnail at right to view special ecological design features
of The Helena, courtesy of Fox and Fowle Architects

Halstead Welles Associates is a high profile rooftop garden designer working on a variety of projects, including a greenroof for the Aveda office in Manhattan.

Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK) has recently been involved with two notable projects: The Human Rights Campaign building in Washington DC (completed) and the St. George Ferry Terminal for the Department of Transportation on Staten Island, New York City (under construction).  HOK Associate David Cook, LEED AP, says the St. George Ferry Terminal "Living Roof" is the corner-stone to its sustainable design.

Working in partnership with NYC DOT and NYC EDC, HOK developed a comprehensive approach to enhance sustainability without increasing cost and designed a roof that can thrive on stored rain water during even severe drought conditions and requires only minimal maintenance. Rainwater from two levels of the north terrace and the living roof itself will be collected and filtered. A cistern for the storage of the harvested rainwater will be located underneath the loading dock instead of underground, saving the costs associated with driving piles, eliminating  the need for municipally provided potable water for irrigation purposes. Although the building will be expanded by 25,000 square feet, water runoff at the site will be reduced. A highly efficient irrigation system, employing drip irrigation technology, will use only rain water captured from the site for the watering requirements. Water savings will amount to approximately 200,000 gallons of water annually. By capturing the rain water from the aforementioned surfaces of the building totaling approximately 30, 000 square feet, the amount of the surface sheet runoff will be measurably reduced. This action would also result in the reduction of total solids, phosphates and other possible contaminants entering the harbor.

HOK's St. George Terminal w/Greenroof

Aerial Shot of HOK's Design of the St. George Terminal, Staten Island

The greenroof itself is planted with native plantings and is designed to attract the monarch butterfly which crosses Staten Island during its annual migration. DOT  cautiously approached the "living roof," but embraced the concept after reviewing the design and is participating in the "living roof" test gardens along with the Staten Island Botanical Garden.

Click to see HOK's St. George Terminal

Click on Project Thumbnail

Regarding local support, David Cook states, " We've found the local government to be very supportive of our proposals for putting green roofs on our designs...the Department of Transportation has played an important role to champion the green roof of St. George. And Governor Pataki signed Executive Order 111 a few years ago which mandates that all new state buildings must incorporate sustainable design guidelines.  David believes that local residents like the idea of greenroofs once they understand the health benefits and realize that these roofs can be accessible and can contribute to better views from surrounding buildings - he thinks the key is education - i.e. educating clients, the general public and private organizations.

Challenge, investigation and design will soon follow.  "I think we are witnessing the beginning of widespread interest in green roofs in New York City," affirms David, and he believes more buildings with large roofscapes, such as convention centers and manufacturing centers, will use greenroof technology in the future.

General Theological Seminary Shed Greenroof by Lynn Torgerson Gardens

Garden shed green roof by Lynn Torgerson
Gardens; Source:

Lynn Torgerson Gardens built a beautiful, small greenroof on a garden tool shed at the General Theological  Episcopal Seminary in New York City.

Mornhurst Gardens, Richard Heller, CLT, a landscape designer, relates his first encounter as a contractor with greenroofs was with The Phillips Club, designed by Landgarden Landscape Architects as a lightweight, low-cost solution to an eyesore.  "The design was a combination of intensive and extensive techniques, very simple, designed to dress up the view of the roof from the hotels elevator banks. None of us knew this was a green roof garden and we were basically reinventing the wheel. The rear is about three feet deep supporting arborvitaes and banks down to a few inches in the front which is surrounded by an interlocking retaining wall system and four large planters built into the design containing Kousa dogwoods," says Richard.

As specified by the landscape architect, the greenroof was set on Ameridrain 250 (the Ameridrain "greenroof" was not available at the time) and the soil mix was a lightweight growers medium planted with vinca. Though the planters and arborvitaes did well, the vinca was less successful, and the plants rapidly consumed the organic material.

"Though none of us knew this was a 'green roof,"' our firm recognized that this was a much lighter way to plant terrace and roof gardens that gave us tremendous creative latitude as well," Richard continues.  "The following spring, as a speaker at a green buildings seminar in Battery Park City, I heard a presentation on green roofs by an architect and realized this is was the future for "in the box" rooftop gardens which are being weight regulated out of existence here in New York City. As we researched further, we enhanced the growers mix at Phillips Club with lightweight expanded shale, changed out the vinca for sedums, and cut the water to the sedum beds."

Kips Bay Decorator Show House by Mornhurst Gardens

Kips Bay Decorator Show House

Mornhurst Gardens has also designed and built a small private residential greenroof lawn in Brooklyn, and done three demonstration green roof gardens over the last four years at the French Designer Show house, Kips Bay Decorator Show House, and will do a fourth project in partnership with Earth Pledge and Green Tech at this year's International Designer Show House in October.

Regarding barriers to construction, Richard says that building owners are concerned about what will happen to the plants if the roof membrane needs servicing. They have ignored the fact that green roof gardens protect roof membranes, and rejected the idea that the plants can be potted up, soil removed and matting rolled up as needed.  Mornhurst Gardens is currently working with the GreenTech modular system to explore the public's response to the idea that plantings can be moved in living tile form in the event the membrane needs inspecting or repair - "What we really need to sell green roof gardens to the more farsighted building owners are statistics on energy savings, and a stronger lead by state and city buildings."

Oaklander, Coogan & Vitto Architects (OCV) is in the process of incorporating intensive green roofs into four of its projects, all publicly funded affordable housing developments constructed in conjunction with non-profit organizations interested in developing supportive, assisted living housing for the community.  All will be  accessible by the tenants.

- Chelsea Residence, located at West 24th St. is a gut rehab of the McBurney YMCA and will be a 207 unit facility providing community based living and counseling services for at risk teens and the formerly homeless.  It is halfway through construction and nearing the point where the installation of green roof systems will begin.
- Miracle Makers, located at 1013-1029 Broadway, in Brooklyn is gut rehab of an existing 4-story loft building and new construction of a 5-story building that will have a total of 101 mini studio apartments and communal facilities, specifically designed to house veterans and senior citizens.
- Georgia's Place, Brooklyn is construction of a new apartment complex of 48 mini studio units designed to house senior citizens and persons with disabilities, also providing support services.
- Newburgh Hotel, Newburgh NY is a gut rehabilitation of the Newburgh Hotel, a large 120,000 square foot facility in downtown Newburgh. It will provide 120 supportive housing units, artist housing with communal studio space, an arts center, and social services.

OCV principal Richard Vitto states, "The roofs are being designed for maximum aesthetic appeal, function, and recreational purposes. Communal space is crucial to these types of projects as it is a vital part of the supportive housing foundation. The green roof provides a perfect blend of function, beauty, efficiency, and community conscience."

Richard believes that higher initial costs can be addressed through monitoring and education. "Currently, there is no vehicle in place that will translate the long term savings in reduced operations costs into funds that will allow us to provide these measures during the construction process. Education of funding agencies and the general public is also a key - As we complete projects which have green roofs and as the benefits can be more clearly demonstrated, people will begin to change their thinking regarding them and view them as a logical way to cover a building."

Local New York Government Support Needs Reinforcement

People say that the mayor is supportive of greenroofs, yet the City is financially strapped.  Richard Heller comments, "We have found government representatives to be a bit hedgy about just how one claims new greenbuilding tax incentives for installing a greenroof. So far the closest thing to a direct response is that there is a clause somewhere in the materials section of the NY State tax incentive program that allows people to who do have greenroofs to take a deduction, though no one has been clear how much, for how long, and whether that covers the green roof system, the system, soil mix and plants, or all the above and the labor. We find this a little less than outright supportive though certainly a huge improvement over no support whatsoever."

OCV's Richard Vitto says "We have not as yet found funding sources that would help pay for just a green roof. We have however received incentives from NYSERDA - the New York State Energy Research and Development Association - for energy efficiency measures that were achieved through an improved building envelope. The green roof contributed greatly to the improved thermal efficiency of the building skin. However, this did not easily fit into their traditional model for awarding these incentives, as the thermal efficiency of the green roof must be coupled with an HVAC system that will exhibit a substantial savings in electrical energy, which is the real focus of the NYSERDA programs."

"We are also at a stage in the beginning of this process, and the involvement of the various regulatory agencies such as The NYC Department of Building and The Department of Environment Protection is still not where it should be. Laws to accommodate the installation of green roofs, especially accessible green roofs, have not been yet been fully investigated and the overall benefit to the NYC environment has still not acknowledged by the city government."

Green Energy Savings & More

Recent interest in greenroofs have had some New Yorkers touting greenroofs as an ecological mitigation tool for lost greenspace, the urban heat island effect and stormwater management. But the argument for greenroofs may have become even more relative now after the August 14 Blackout - government leaders are calling for new power plant stations to sustain the current demand for power.  No one would argue that the existing infrastructure technology needs to be brought up to the present, but perhaps we need to rethink the equation, and combine technological, economic and ecological measures to review energy usage.  In other words, let's build a better mouse trap, not necessarily a bigger one.

Weston Design Consultants' study of December 2000 concluded that if all of Chicago's rooftops were greened, the city would experience an energy savings of $100,000,000 per year - and the bottom line is that "Peak demand would be cut by 720 megawatts - the equivalent energy consumption of several coal-fired generating stations or one small nuclear power plant."  Dr. Brad Bass, of Environment Canada says that just by countering the urban heat Island effect, greenroofs can reduce the demand for summer electricity by 5 to 10 per cent.

Perhaps we may not be able to reduce demand for power, but we can reduce usage through the energy savings associated with greenroofs and other thermal optimizing design strategies. Does that mean that a high number of greenroofs probably need to be built for a great enough impact to capitalize on this theory? Probably, but I believe here is an opportunity for New York and area governments to be proactive and enact policy and economic initiatives such as grants, tax savings, development space bonuses, etc., to offset higher initial costs and jumpstart more greenroof construction.

I think we all understand that national and city governments everywhere are financially strained with many pressing issues, but we do need to stop mortgaging our "natural resources" - that means our Earth - and our future at some point.  Let's encourage the earth friendly technology of organic greenroof architecture through public and private support, education and shared visions of ecological design, at the same time creating beauty, spirit of place and reinstating respect for our natural systems and people of our Earth.

To learn more about New York, click on the following books:

Join me next month as I visit green Stuttgart and the headquarters of German leaders Optigrün and ZinCo, and get an update on measures and initiatives.

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