Introduction to living roofs

"George come and look. That crazy woman from no 11 is putting plants on her roof."

That's what I imagine our neighbours are saying. Because yes I have a large brick built shed at the bottom of my garden and it has a green roof (see our guide on how to create one) - pictured above are some sunflowers growing on it, below, starlings feeding.

You can grow almost anything on a roof... 
The Torre Guinigi in Lucca is a bell tower where a grove of 6 or 7 holm oak trees grow at the top. It's about 40m high, but worth the climb. You can relax in the shade and take great photos over the city (which is surrounded by very wide walls with trees and a park on top).

A little history...

Green roofs are nothing new. Stone Age people used them in the UK and the Vikings were keen on them too, as they provide excellent insulation against the cold. There are many living roof buildings in Scandinavia, particularly in Iceland, often dating back many centuries - as shown in the photos below of green roof houses at the folk museum at Glaumbaer.

The main dwellings are constructed like a normal house, but many of the buildings are partly constructed with turf - as with the new gable wall above, and the older building below, which has survived a lot of weathering in a very exposed place.
The green roof on this building merges with the living wall....

Green roofs were also used for more important buildings, such as churches - this one is at Vidimyri (above and below) and is considered to be "the purest example and the most beautiful keepsake of the Icelandic architecture."

In Iceland, green roofed buildings are still being built. The one above is in the Reykjavik botanic garden. But not all living roof buildings are so traditional looking. The house below, in Hofsvik, just northwest of the capital, has parts that are more reminiscent of Tellytubbys or Hobbits.
It is very well protected against the elements, leaving only the southern aspect open to the weather, and includes a conventional roof on part of the main house. A close up of the green roof shows that they've used nylon netting to help knit the turf together as it gets established.

In recent years living roofs have become the next big green idea. The Germans and Swiss are ahead of us in the UK. But we are catching up. According to Green roof guru Dusty Gedge, 420,000 square metres of green roofs were installed in London between 2004-2008, and major new developments in central London now have to have green roofs (or if that isn't feasible a much more eco-friendly roof).

Green buildings around the world

A Paris roof garden, spotted from the top of the Arc de Triomphe
 A green car park in San Francisco
 A not so green roof in Disneyworld, Florida

A Japanese take on the green roof and living walls theme designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara, at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2010 (above - with lots more on our blog post) and 2008 (below).

Two of our favourite green buildings are the quirky KunstHausWien museum in Vienna, designed by the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, which houses a permanent exhibition of his works, and the nearby Hundertwasser House, an apartment building. Both have green roofs, undulating floors and trees growing out of the walls.
Views of the facade of the KunstHausWien (above) and the Hundertwasser House (below)

Why roofs should go green...

So, why would you want one? Well they can keep a building cool in summer and protect the roof's surface because plants are pretty good at absorbing sunlight. They can act as insulation and reduce the need for air conditioning. The plants and soil absorb water, which helps reduce the risk of flash flooding.
Oxalis on our green roof

For us the two most important things about having a green roof are:

The wildlife in the area love it. We have insects, bees, butterflies, birds and our local fox likes to take a nap up there. Our neighbour said that thanks to us her little boy knows more about the local wildlife because he can watch it from his bedroom window and not scare it away.

The other important reason is it looks good. Most people look out onto a boring grey shed roof. Our's changes colour with the seasons, with an ever changing array of plants, such as white snowdrops, yellow daffodils, beautiful blue chives, pink geraniums, or dark red sedums - plus some plants we have no idea about (such as the one below), which just turn up and make themselves at home....

If any of the above causes you to think you might like to create your own living roof, have a look at our other page Green Roofs - A Guide, which tells you how we created ours and has lots more information and links to how others made their own green roofs.

© 2010