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A Noble Idea: Sea Ranch’s Living Roofs

on January 28, 2021 at 2:07 pm under , , , ,
Sea Ranch

The Sea Ranch is a planned community on 10 miles of California’s northern Sonoma Coast that was developed in the early 1960’s. Originally laid out by developer Al Boeke with Oceanic, Inc. and landscape architect Larry Halprin, Sea Ranch was intended to be a second home community that embraced its surrounding environment. The development, with multiple award winning architectural gems, has held true to its original ideology of fulfilling the promise of living lightly on the land through oversight of its Design Review Committee and the CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions) of the Home Owners Association.

What could be a better way of interpreting “integrating a structure into the surrounding landscape,” the tenet of one of Sea Ranch’s renown award winning architects, Donlyn Lyndon, than by having green or living roofs atop structures?

Sea Ranch

The Ramirez House Living Roof, atop the garage. The home is partially earth sheltered. Photo by Arthur Drooker, provided by Gabriel Ramirez.

Even though The Sea Ranch has over 1,800 houses, only a fraction have living roofs, and many of these are confined to the garage, connecting the building directly to the surrounding earth while providing a pathway for grazing deer.

Living Roofs at The Sea Ranch

My husband and I are fortunate to be the privileged owners of one of Sea Ranch’s historical sod roofed houses – an Esherick-designed Hedgerow/Demonstration house located on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

Sea Ranch

The Jones Sod Roof, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Image: Deloras Jones.

As such, we also feel we owe it to the visionaries and early architects who built Sea Ranch to be stewards of one of its iconic features and promote its values. Our house is built into the berm of the earth, so that it is below ground level…but not related to the sod roof. As trail walking visitors and hikers view our roof, we find they want to know more about these amazing living roofs.

A note of clarification: In the 1960’s living roofs at The Sea Ranch were collectively referred to as “sod roofs.” The sod roofs at The Sea Ranch were originally planted with native grasses, and some, especially on garages, were partially earth-sheltered.

Sea Ranch

This is a photo of our house before an addition was added in the late 1960’s. Image: Journey to The Sea Ranch, The University of California Berkeley.

We are often asked:

1. What is the history of the original sod roofs at Sea Ranch?
2. Do they leak?
3. Are they fire resistant or a fire danger?
4. Are they difficult to maintain?
5. Can a native sod roof or green roof be retrofitted to an existing roof?
6. How does a sod roof differ from a green or living roof? These are different names for similar roof systems that consist of soil or other growing media and vegetation. Sod, or turf, roofs are limited in plant palette to either one type of cultivated grass (grown in rolls) or native grasses planted on the roof. Greenroof, green roof or living roof are now accepted as the common names, so while a sod roof is a living roof, not all living roofs are sod roofs.
7. Are they worth the time and money to install?

As a homeowner of a Sea Ranch iconic home with a sod roof, I would like to share a perspective on this unique building feature.

History

Sea Ranch

The author on her sod roof, planted with wild flowers and bunch grasses, integrating with the meadow and increasing its biodiversity. Image: Janet MacKinnon.

Most living roofs found at Sea Ranch are planted with grasses with a few exceptions – our roof being one of them. Originally our house was planted with just grasses, but it has been replanted to reflect the meadow below with native wild flowers, meadow bunch grass, and the nearby bluff top succulents. It took a few years of trial and error until the right plants were identified to withstand the harsh windy ocean-side environment.

Sea Ranch

The Jones’s Sea Ranch garage roof is located in a micro climate that tolerates drought resistant dwarf manzanita and succulents. Image: Deloras Jones.

Our garage roof, in a different micro climate and not visible from the bluff trail, is planted with low maintenance succulents and dwarf manzanita.

Joseph Esherick & Associates (now EHDD) created the first sod roofs at Sea Ranch with the building of the Hedgerow/Demonstration Houses on Black Point Reach – the first single family homes on Sea Ranch in 1965. Two of the single story homes facing the meadow and some of the garages in this cluster of demonstration homes were constructed with sod roofs; now only one house (ours) and two garages retain these roofs.

Sea Ranch

On the bluff near the front of our house. Image: via Estately.

Subsequently, architects and builders created more homes with living roofs, with the express purpose of connecting the homes with the surrounding environment. Notables are Obie Bowman’s Brunsell House and Seameadow House, Paul Hamilton’s Kirkland houses, and Janet MacKinnon’s Hedgegate House.

Sea Ranch

Hedgegate. Photo by Jonnu Singleton, courtesy of Janet MacKinnon.

Sod or living roofs have been part of the landscape, especially in rural settings in Europe, for hundreds of years. But, the green roof has gained global momentum during the last three decades as water conservation becomes more of an issue along with the need to manage rainwater in major cities where dual sewer and stormwater infrastructures became overwhelmed with increasing rainfall events. Cities have instituted planning requirements for builders to retain storm water on-site, which brought about rain gardens, site hydrology, and green infrastructure.

San Francisco Bay Area examples include the Gap Headquarters in San Bruno, the renown California Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park, and the living wall at Drew School in Pacific Heights. Recent projects have even gone a step further. The new Salesforce Transit Center’s roof top gardens above the TransBay Terminal in downtown San Francisco are watered through on-site recycled black and gray water.

Sea Ranch

The California Academy of Sciences. Image: By and courtesy of Tom Fox, SWA Group.

Do the roofs leak?

Preventing leaks all has to do with the process of creating an impermeable roof. The knowhow and technology has evolved allowing for the building of living roofs that are leak proof and using lighter weight growing media, which cuts down on the construction costs used for older, heavier roof gardens. Ours was built very straight forward – a watertight 5-ply membrane was placed atop the construction roof with about 8-10 inches of soil added. Just plain old top soil was used…originally, that was 55 years ago, and we just augmented it about 19 years ago with a scoop of top soil from the local building and supply company.

At one time the roof did leak where the membrane was compromised when water entered around the chimney and vent pipes from a supersaturated roof caused by a failed automatic irrigating system. Resealing the roof with tar nearly 20 years ago has taken care of any further leaking issues. Not too bad for a roof that is 55 years old!

Are they fire resistant or are the roofs a fire danger?

The vulnerability of wild fires that weighs heavily on the minds of all of us living in rural California makes the risk of fires a growing concern for all. Also, fire danger is on the minds of insurance companies that have been increasing our insurance rates because of fire risk, or in many cases, canceling policies all together. As most of Sea Ranch’s green roofs are actually brown roofs during the summer time, as the grasses dry out, the roofs need to be managed as one does other fire reduction measures, which includes ensuring there is defensible space around buildings.

Sea Ranch

Hedgegate. Photo by Jonnu Singleton, courtesy of Janet MacKinnon.

Thus, the roofs may need mowing and/or watering so that they do not provide fuel for the spreading of a fire. With proper plant selection, watering systems, and growing media, sod/green roofs may actually provide a fire barrier. As soil does not burn, sod roofs may provide protection for the roof below. Whereas building departments have become supporters of living roofs, fire departments often have a different view, particularly where they see brown roofs with long blades of dried grass, not “green” roofs. This causes them to approach the subject of living roofs with trepidation.

Are green roofs difficult to maintain?

Living roofs require maintenance. A grass roof will grow on its own during the rainy winter-time, but needs to be maintained before the summer fire season begins in the same way that is required by the grasses surrounding your home as described above. If native wild flowers are to be enjoyed, watering and removing obnoxious weeds that blow in must be part of the maintenance process. Fertilizing is sometimes also necessary as the growing medium may not regenerate its nutrients as does the soil in a meadow. The roof may need to be nurtured as you would an interior garden.

Sea Ranch

The Seameadow House Living Roof reaches the ground to make a pathway for deer to graze, over the garage. Image: Janet MacKinnon.

Are living roofs worth the time and cost to install?

The answer to this question is to examine the Advantages and Disadvantages of a green or living roof…how does it balance out for you? *

Advantages

According to www.greenroofers.co.uk, “A green roof provides a rainwater buffer, purifies the air, reduces the ambient temperature, regulates the indoor temperature, saves energy, decreases carbon footprint, increases life span of a roof, and encourages friendly habitat…”

Additionally, we have found our living roof:

1. Connects the house to the surrounding meadow and increases a sense of naturalism in our Sea Ranch environment
2. Has a pleasing aesthetic appeal
3. Provides a place for a picnic on a grassy roof top knoll
4. Extends the life of the roof membrane by protecting it from ultraviolet rays and other environmental sources of breakdown
5. Adds to the insulation of the house, thus decreasing heating and cooling costs
6. Helps manage rain fall by the water being absorbed into the soil, rather that running directly off the roof

Sea Ranch

The Brunsell House Living Roof also reaches the ground. Image: Janet MacKinnon.

Disadvantages

1. Requires: Greater initial investment to precisely create the living roof than a more standard roof
2. Ongoing maintenance and care in selecting plants
3. Possibly, higher insurance rates

Sea Ranch

Jones’s Sod Roof. Image: Deloras Jones.

As green roofs are becoming a more desirable part of commercial construction and the building of houses are looking for way to incorporate green and sustainable principles into construction, here at The Sea Ranch we already have some excellent examples. Scattered throughout The Ranch are the roofs that home owners and visionary architects have created to link structures to the landscape.

How does one build a living roof? See my follow-up article in the next issue of The Sea Ranch Bulletin, to be published here at Greenroofs.com soon.

Sea Ranch

The Jones’s Sod Roof, above the meadow overlooking the ocean. Image: Deloras Jones.

Adapted from an article that appeared in The Sea Ranch Association’s The Bulletin, December 2020.

For more information on Sea Ranch see: Donlyn Lyndon and Jim Alinder, The Sea Ranch, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2014.

~ Deloras Jones

Publisher’s Notes:

* Please see Greenroofs.com’s FAQs for a complete rundown of commonly asked questions regarding greenroofs and greenwalls, and in particular Linda Velazquez’s article “Organic Greenroof Architecture: Sustainable Design for the New Millennium.”

Also read more about The Sea Ranch at Journey to The Sea Ranch from The University of California Berkeley, an incredible resource.

Deloras Jones

Sea Ranch

Deloras Jones has been living at Sea Ranch since 2016 following her second retirement in health care. Previously, Deloras retired after a 37 year career with Kaiser Permanente, at which time she was the health care giant’s first system-wide nurse leader. She then went on to establish a non-profit organization that served as California’s nursing workforce center. Jones and her husband purchased their Sea Ranch home in 2001, after renting for several years. At the time of purchase all they knew about the house was that it had a great deal of deferred maintenance to be dealt with, had an incredible bluff top ocean view, and had a sod roof. To their pleasant surprise they learned they bought a historical home – one of the development’s first single family homes.

Deloras Jones is a member of Sea Ranch’s Archives Committee, and whose interest in Sea Ranch’s history was generated by living in an original and iconic home. She is also a passionate gardener who seeks to recreate the meadow on her roof – wild flowers and colorful bluff top succulents in addition to meadow grass.

Contact Deloras at: [email protected]

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