The Winter of Our Discontent:
Our Roof Gardens Require Tending
Hello once again, green roof fans,
As many of you know, the Green Roof Guy’s strong suit is in roofing, not horticulture. Although I’ve learned much along this decade-long green roof odyssey, some through osmosis, much through trial and error, I still rely heavily on my friend and horticulturist partner, Vic Jost. Together we have developed the Green Roof Blocks product line. Some were introduced to market after careful research and some were rushed to market on little more than a hunch.
Left to right: Dr. Bill Retzlaff of SIUe, Kelly Luckett, Vic Jost on a green roof, 2007.
We sponsored research that both confirmed what we hypothesized and revealed trouble spots for this fledgling new industry. I recall a particular brainstorming session that took place at 30,000 feet while flying to a green roof conference. By the time we touched down back here in St. Louis, the design was complete and the factory was beginning production. There have been hundreds of meetings that have been far less dynamic. Yet, we continue to come together to discuss the direction of our joint efforts. We like to meet each January to plot the course of the coming new year. This year was no different.
SUIe Research with Green Roof Blocks on June 30, 2006. Photo by Linda S. Velazquez.
We have settled into somewhat of a pattern lately. We meet at the same restaurant and start off each meeting with the same pleasantries; how are the wife and kids, how we hate our bodies getting old, and how the waitresses seem to be getting younger and younger. Eventually, the conversation turns towards business. We discuss the economy, how it has dramatically affected the growth of the industry, and compare our opinion of signs of things to come.
We cover everything from routine housekeeping items regarding day to day business to top secret product development strategy. I poke fun at his incredible rate of metabolism while I look up over my Caesar salad to watch him shovel in bacon wrapped red meat. He still guzzles Mountain Dew. I’m trying to cut back on Diet Coke. We mock fight over the check but both of us really want to get this one knowing full well that the next meeting will be at a steakhouse and will include cocktails. I reach into my front pants pocket to fish out my money clip. Too late, he had his credit card in his shirt pocket. Didn’t see that coming…nicely played, Vic Jost…nicely played.
After concluding our business with our waitress, he slides out and stands. I follow his lead and extend my hand to bring the meeting to a close. He grasps my hand and looks me in the eye with those innocent blue eyes and drops the bombshell, “You need to prepare. The ag and hort analysts are forecasting widespread, devastating losses.”
Sedums in winter.
I heard the words but the meaning was a little fuzzy still. The economy has been less than great for more than a few years now. Almost everyone’s sales have been lack luster. Many have experienced losses through various economic mechanisms. I’m not a good poker player because everyone at the table knows when I’m holding aces and when I have all four suits with nothing larger than a six. My face must have been asking, How can it get any worse?
Then Vic explained: plant losses. Remember the lovely mild winter followed by the glorious perfect blend of rainfall and sun that blessed us in the spring and stuck around for most of the summer last year? We were elated by the stunning photo ops with images of green roofs brimming with blooming Sedum and rich green foliage filled hard drives.
What followed, however, was what some experts fear may be the perfect storm. Temperatures cooled quickly, which by itself could be problematic for late season lush plant growth. Then winter 2013-2014 graced us with its presence and brought with it several very rapid 30+ degree swings. These temp swings were followed by polar vortex winds that pushed wind chills to historic lows.
On January 21, 2014, temperatures plunged to minus 40°F over the Upper Midwest and were below zero as far south as portions of the Ohio Valley and as far east as northern New England.
As I write this, I’m enjoying a 24-hour warm up from -1° to a cozy 18°F. Bare this in mind, Fans, the Green Roof Guy is a glass-always-full kind of person. I’ve got no time for half measures or half full glasses. I’m either all in or all out. However, I try to be a pragmatic business person.
3rd highest North American snow cover this late in the season on record (48 years)! Source: NOAA
Experts are warning of catastrophic losses for AT GRADE plant material. Should they be correct, it stands to reason that those of us planting in shallow soil profiles that are elevated far above grade could experience similar, if not more severe, losses. There’s not much any of us can do about it now. Should the experts' fears come to be, as an industry, we need to begin the discussion of how to better prepare for these weather anomalies.
Part of the discussion needs to include realistic expectations of what we are attempting to accomplish with our man made “natural systems,” as well as the risks we face. The simple truth is we’re still making our way through this learning curve. Our customers need to understand their role as risk takers. Their investment in their buildings is no safer than their investments in the stock market.
The impression that we humans can warranty the life of a living system is flawed. We’re not in the hardscape business. There’s no such thing as a No Dollar Limit warranty on a plant. While the word “roof” may be embedded in the moniker of our industry, we are not in the roofing business. The nearly five year endeavor to develop wind and fire design guidelines should serve to demonstrate this fact.
The American roofing industry has a 160-year head start on us. They’ve gone from a focus on maintenance, to bonded roof installations (if you don’t know, grab a roofer over the age of 60 and ask), to the age of the roof consultant, to the NDL warranty, only to return to a focus on maintenance.
Let’s save ourselves 160 years of agony and lawsuits and focus on what we already know: our gardens require tending.
Looking forward to winter's thaw; Photo: HDW.
Spring starts on Thursday. Stay warm, my green friends, summer is out there waiting for us, I promise.
Kelly Luckett, The Green Roof Guy
Kelly Luckett is President of GREEN ROOF BLOCKS and Green Paks and a member of the USGBC; he is also a contributing editor on Greenroofs.com, The Green Roof Guy. Kelly has been involved in the industry since 1980, is a LEED Accredited Professional and also holds a GRP accreditation - Green Roof Professional. In 2009, Kelly authored Green Roof Construction and Maintenance, published by McGraw-Hill's Greensource and in 2010 he received the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Civic Award of Excellence in recognition of his contribution to the green roof industry.
Contact Kelly at: 314.220.2113, or email him at either: GreenRoofGuy@greenroofs.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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