Sustainability Goes through Denver's Roof

Progressive developers and building managers are no longer ignoring rooftops. These spaces, once the sole domain of air conditioning units and storm water systems, are growing into a hotbed of agricultural innovation that can include gardens, greenhouses and even beehives.
Andy Creath is leading the charge into a new frontier in Colorado: rooftop gardens. And, he says, business is booming.
For the past several years, Creath has been installing green roofs all over Colorado with his company, Green Roofs of Colorado. He recently finished a 12,000 square foot green roof -- with space for lettuce, spinach, chili and other vegetables -- on the top of the new Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora.
"You're definitely seeing a new age" in green roofs in Colorado, Creath says.
While many know and understand the value of mounting solar panels on the roofs of buildings in order to take advantage of that largely unused space, some innovators in Denver are now moving beyond that with the installation of lawns, gardens and even beehives on the tops of buildings. The result can lower heating and cooling costs, create new business opportunities or just establish somewhere nice to spend one's lunch break.
Rooftop gardens are relatively common on the East Coast, where rainfall is plentiful and the climate is friendly. Indeed, the garden atop Chicago's City Hall, established in 2002, has reduced the roof's surface temperature by 70 degrees Fahrenheit and air temperature by 15 degrees F. Colorado, however, poses special challenges.
"Green roofs in this climate are really hard most of the year," says Daniel LeBlanc, Senior Sustainability Manager at YR&G, a corporate consulting firm. "We don't do too many of these because it is a harsh climate."
Rooftop gardens In DenverThe Denver Botanic Garden's Green Roof Garden in 2012.
But Creath and others are working to find the right mix of plants, soil and watering to make green roofs a viable investment for Colorado developers, building owners and residents. Creath said he has even begun sharing green roof tips and tricks with peers in other, similar locations such as Afghanistan.
David Rubin, brand manager for the Denver Botanic Gardens, says that the DBG has tried over 100 different native plants on its green roof, which sits atop the venue's café. Built more than six years ago, the DBG's rooftop garden stands as a way to educate visitors about the usefulness of rooftop gardens and their effectiveness in the Southwest.
The concept has been successful enough at the DBG that designers pushed the new Mordecai Children's Garden on top of the DBG's parking structure that was built three years ago. "Two of the three acres of the children's garden happen to be over the parking structure," says Rubin.
Creath explains that, while it's difficult to calculate the exact return on investment of rooftop gardens in Colorado, they can reduce summer cooling costs in the rooms below by 15 to 20 percent and winter heating costs by around 5 percent. Further, rooftop gardens, when properly installed and maintained, can dramatically prolong the life of a roof's waterproof membrane by protecting it from solar radiation and excessive temperatures -- rooftops in Denver can sometimes reach 150 degrees F, Creath says. YR&G's Daniel LeBlanc said roofs with gardens can last up to 50 years in the right conditions.
"There is a payback," Creath says, adding that green roofs have been included in the city's construction of the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, the Clyfford Still Museum and the Denver Justice Center.
Beyond gardens
The Brown Palace Hotel has long operated five bee colonies on its roof.But gardens aren't the only type of agriculture that can enhance the value of a roof. The Brown Palace Hotel has operated five bee colonies on its roof since 2010 as a way to make use of the space and set itself apart from the competition.
The Brown Palace’s “Royal Bee Initiative” uses the colonies' honey in a wide range of applications. For example, 75 pounds of rooftop honey goes to the Wynkoop Brewing Company for the Brown Palace Rooftop Honey Saison summertime beer brew. The honey is also used in the hotel's cocktails and afternoon tea, and is sold in jars as "pure, organic Rooftop Honey."
Interestingly, the Brown Palace also uses its honey in its spa for the "Queen Bee Body Scrub" that "exfoliates, hydrates and balances the skin’s pH." The honey is used to make the spa's Lip Balm and Honey Lavender Soap.
But perhaps the most innovative and wide-ranging rooftop initiative sits atop the 10-story LEED Gold building at 2020 Lawrence Street. In partnership with Zocalo Community Development and Berkshire Property Advisors, the nonprofit Groundwork Denver is working to open Groundwork Greens, a 2,600 square foot greenhouse there that the group hopes will produce over 15,000 pounds of fresh vegetables per year. Groundwork Denver's goal is to "bring about the sustained improvement of the physical environment and promote health and well-being through community-based partnerships and action."
Scheduled to open in 2014, the Groundwork Greens greenhouse will use a hydroponic system that uses 70 percent less water than traditional farming, the group says, and it will be maintained by a workforce of low-income youth who might not otherwise be able to find a job. And the food produced at the greenhouse will be distributed weekly to residents at 2020 Lawrence using a community supported agriculture (CSA) business model -- with the goal ensuring healthy food options for urban Denverites.
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Read more articles by Mike Dano.

Mike is a freelance writer and executive editor of FierceMarkets Telecom Group.
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