Why Ecoroofs Are So Cool!


Matt Burlin is a big believer in maximizing urban space. You need a roof right? So why not really use it? Matt works with The City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services to spread the word about initiatives, like Ecoroofs, that will make our city more efficient, more eco-friendly and more productive. In our session with him, Matt tells us the benefits of Ecoroofs, what they’re made out of and why they’re so rad.

SE: What exactly is an Ecoroof and why are they so stinkin’ cool?
Basically an Ecoroof is a vegetated, sustainable roof alternative. It has vegetation, a soil system and it’s lightweight. It’s designed to be as self-sustaining as possible. The thing that makes an Ecoroof special, and what differentiates them from what people know as a “green roof,” is that the soil is very shallow. Ecoroofs are particularly lightweight, so they’re able to be adapted for home use more so than what are typically called roof gardens or green roofs, which have deeper soils, making them potentially heavy and in need of irrigation.

Because an Ecoroof is designed to be lightweight, and because the soil and plants used are designed appropriately, they function very well for storm water management and offer a lot of other benefits. What makes them cool is the fact that they bring roof space back into play. Typically roofs are out of sight and out of mind. They’re places we don’t really think about as far as their function or their potential. An Ecoroof takes advantage of these spaces that are otherwise “dead” within a built environment. And when you’re in a dense urban center, roof space actually takes up a good deal of area in an urban center. In this case, not using that is a lost opportunity.

SE: What are some of the materials you see typically used in an Ecoroof?
It varies. The designs and materials can range from very simple to extremely complicated. There’s a rapidly growing industry of designers and products and raw materials where people are creating their own system. We’re seeing packaged materials now and tray systems and lots of other innovative products. The basic components often include the crucial waterproof membrane; root barrier membrane that prevents the roots of plants from getting to and damaging the waterproof membrane; a material that aids water run-off from the roof called a drainage layer; an element of growing media or soil; and, of course, the plants.

SE: What are some of the benefits to making this investment and bringing your roof alive?
Our purpose at the Bureau of Environmental Services is to support the use of Ecoroofs as tools for storm water management. The real priority for us is the use of plants in the built environment on roofs, as well as on streets and sidewalks, to catch and retain storm water that would otherwise find its way into the sewer system.

In theory, there may also be some insulation benefits, but that function is still being researched—and would depend on what kind and how much soil is being used, the type of plants, etc.

SE: Why is it important to keep storm water out of the sewer system?
Portland is a city that relies on “combined sewer.” That means all of the sewage that runs from our homes and buildings as well, as the storm water that comes off of those homes and buildings, all goes to the same place. At times, like when we have very large rain events, that mixture can exceed the capacity of the pipes and go right into the river. In terms of our bureau and the mission of our sustainable storm water division, we look at creating sustainable alternatives to keep that water on-site and keep it from going into the pipes and making the problem worse.

We promote Ecoroofs as a sustainable way to manage roof runoff. Portland has 12, 500 acres of roof space in the city. If you can imagine 20 sq. mi of roof space that is impervious—in other words the water has to find a place to go off of it—it gives a picture of how big a source of storm water runoff roofs are.

Sometimes when we get hit with those really big rain events, the pipe system gets hit with all that water at once and poses a pretty significant issue. It ends up compromising water quality in the Willamette River, as well as other smaller water ways. So anything that comes off streets—all the dust and oil from our cars and homes, is getting into the river with those types of events.

SE: Is that pretty typical of cities? To have a combined sewer system?
It’s not necessarily typical, but it’s an option of how to design a sewer system in a city. Portland’s certainly not the only city with this kind of a system. I’m not sure whether all of them are following the same way of dealing with this problem as we are, but I know many of them are. This is one way of keeping the volume down on the combination of sewer and storm water.

SE: Are there any studies that show air quality improvements from having more Ecoroofs in a concentrated area?
There are. There are a lot of benefits beyond what I mentioned earlier. The question here is what can plants do to lower pollution and raise air quality, because Ecoroofs are mostly made of plants and soil. We know that trees and vegetation help to breathe in contaminated and polluted air and help to clean that air of some pollutants, especially in urban environments. That philosophy or mentality is carried through with an Ecoroof.

The same goes for water quality. If you think about contamination in water, of temperature and even how water reaches a stream—when it runs off a surface in a built environment, it’s often a lot warmer than it should be, which has a negative affect on the water quality. Fish prefer to swim in cooler water. And having plants and soil to slow the water down lets it cool before it reaches the stream.

Ecoroofs also benefit pollenators and other insects and birds in areas like this that are urban, built environments. They very often provide safe haven for these birds and insects in an area that otherwise may not be green.

The last benefit that I’ll mention is that the Ecoroof prolongs the life of the roof. Studies show that when you use an Ecoroof, your roof will last up to twice as long, if not more than that. That’s a huge cost savings to the property owner. The waterproof membrane I mentioned before, is very susceptible to photo radiation over time in a conventional roof. So when it goes back and forth between cold and warm, it’s susceptible to that energy and heat change. It expands and contracts and expands and contracts, etc. That, over time, results in a failing roof—either peeling or cracks in the membrane, which causes leaks and the roof has to be replaced. That material is protected by the plants and soil of an Ecoroof, so the level of degradation for the waterproof membrane is of less concern.

SE: What’s happening with Ecoroof Portland 2010? What’s on the agenda this year and how is it different than the 2009 event?
This event is a follow-up to the 2009 Ecoroof Vendors Fair, and the purpose of both events is to attract and educate Portlanders who are interested in Ecoroofs. There are so many different levels of learning, but we’re trying to target property owners and developers in particular that want to incorporate Ecoroofs into their home or businesses and developments. Maybe they’re unfamiliar with the concepts around them or the process of bringing one to life. Because it’s a relatively new approach to addressing this problem locally, we’re really trying to connect people who are interested with local professionals.

There’s so many people involved—builders, designers, researchers, architects and engineers—and there’s a lot of specific skills that you have to rely on during construction. This is essentially a construction project, but it’s a bit different than a typical project because of these specific skills, which we hope to line up for these folks. It’s not exactly a conference, but over time we hope to collect the resources that make building an Ecoroof easier for these folks. This year, being our second year, what we’ve done is expand not only the title of the event, and make it more general, but also expand the programming and what we’re offering so that even people who just want to learn about Ecoroofs can come and have a great experience. That includes taking people out and showing them some of the projects in our area. That includes doing some live installations. We’re going to incorporate a lot of art and photographs that show the beauty and context of Ecoroofs. We’re also going to have a lot of our speakers talk in more tangible ways about Ecoroofs and how they lead of city and community development.

SE: Is the City of Portland still offering the incentive program that was so popular last year, that helps cover some of the costs of building an Ecoroof on their home or business?
Yes we will. We offer an incentive for home and property owners in the city of up to $5 per square foot. That’s intended to help them choose an Ecoroof as a sustainable alternative to a conventional roof. We offer that twice a year—in December and June—and will be available until 2013.

SE: Are there any plans to expand that program outside of Portland proper?
There’s not for us. We have no plan to expand outside of the city, because we can’t work outside of our jurisdiction. Indirectly though, there’s a broad Ecoroof community that’s all over the world, so through our outreach program and our webiste and online communications, we maintain an educational role in the industry.

Matt Burlin is the Outreach Coordinator for the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Service’s (BES) Sustainable Stormwater Program. He’s also the BES Ecoroof Coordinator + Director of Ecoroof Portland 2010.

Ecoroof Portland 2010 takes place on March 12-13th from 10-6pm at the Leftbank Annex, located at 101 N Weidler. For more information on Ecoroof Portland 2010 and the work done by Portland BES, please visit their website. If you’re interested in being a vendor at Ecoroof Portland 2010, please visit the Social Enterprises website + download the application.


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