High Ideals: Green Aesthetics for Your Roof

There are currently three major impediments to the growth of green building in the American residential market: cash, conservatism and cosmetics. Even with government subsidization, the extra upfront cost associated with the installation of most green products will only ease with time, as higher production lowers costs. And the conservatism of both consumers and construction professionals reluctant to install unproven or unfamiliar technology has stymied adoption of sustainable principles. This, too, time will erode.
While we wait for those barriers to crumble, manufacturers can work on the third major impediment: the sheer ugliness of some green products. Many consumers have been won over by the green cause, but are still reluctant to install products that they feel blemish their property.
The most prominent battlefield in the struggle between staid and sustainable is the humble, single-residency roof. Not only are they the front line in seasonal temperature loss, roofs are the most conspicuous portion of any home. Some are the proud badge of their treehugging homeowner while others are meant to blend into the neighborhood as much as possible. Manufacturers are already addressing both philosophies.
For those cautiously accepting the green building movement, the best roof option is one that looks like their neighbor’s. In the U.S., this means asphalt shingles, ubiquitous due to their relatively low cost and ease of maintenance. But asphalt shingles are petroleum-based, outgas VOCs, have poor insulation and last a paltry 20 years on average. Slate roofs, by comparison, are much more expensive but can last hundreds of years with proper maintenance, if not indefinitely.
The middle ground may be composite roof tiles. The good ones are indistinguishable from slate at half the cost. While they can’t claim to last centuries, some composites, like Michigan’s Inspire Roofings have a 50 year warranty. Inspire compresses natural stone and resin to form tiles resembling slate, while other companies, such as Minneapolis-based Trimline, use recycled materials in their molds.
Modern solar panels have been around for decades. While their energy efficiency is still rather modest, even the oldest ones earn back their investment within a few years. So why hasn’t every homeowner with the capital installed a few on his or her house? Part of the reason may be that most homeowners don’t want their house to appear as if it is under attack by giant, metallic butterflies. But solar panels are no longer the winged monstrosities of the ’60’s and ’70’s. Over the decades they’ve achieved smaller and smaller profiles and with some technologies, they are now virtually invisible.
California-based SunPower Corporation manufactures a “SunTile” that, from a distance, is indistinguishable from the traditional tar and asphalt roof shingle. This system can be mixed in with asphalt shingles or across the entire roof. But until demand increases production, SunPower only offers the tiles for use on planned developments of more than 25 homes.
The PAC Solar Series by Peterson Aluminum of Elk Grove Village offers standing seam roofs embedded with solar-collecting film. The lightweight solar laminate is fused to standard aluminum panels in the factory, alleviating the need for mechanical fasteners that may compromise the roof’s integrity. The laminate expands and contracts with the roof due to heat change and promises competitive efficiencies. But the best part is that the roof is virtually indistinguishable from any other standing seam installation.
Capping off the sustainable roofing spectrum is the highly visible vegetative roof. These roofs mitigate the urban heat island effect, retain stormwater runoff and improve insulation. They are currently rare in residential applications, but even those commercial and institutional installations suffer from the unsightly design of many modular systems.
Most vegetative roofs are comprised of plastic trays filled with a growing medium, seeded, and installed like tile on the roof. The growing medium typically comes to the top of the tray and the plants are at best young sprouts. After the installation of these roofs, the initial result is a checkerboard of dirt, spotted with green. LiveRoof LLC offers a “prevegetated” system that leaves an attractive, lush green roof upon install.
Two aspects give the LiveRoof system an aesthetic edge. Firstly, the growing medium, a mostly inorganic mesh that resists compression, is built up higher than the trays through the use of plastic soil elevators which are removed upon installation. The soil in each tray serves as ballast to its neighbors, creating a seamless bed that completely hides the recycled plastic trays. Secondly, LiveRoof grows the plants to full maturity, ensuring that the customer has a lush roof not several weeks or even months later, but immediately.
The U.S. lags behind Europe in adoption of green building practices, and getting those practices to take further root will require even more time. But perhaps with a focus on aesthetics, we can trim the time scale down from the glacial to merely the epic.


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