Celebrating 15 Years of Our Thriving Green Roof

My original green roof at Good Earth Plant Company in Kearny Mesa, still growing strong after 15 years.

My original green roof at Good Earth Plant Company in Kearny Mesa, still growing strong after 15 years.

Fifteen years ago this month, the first permitted commercial green roof appeared on a building in the City of San Diego at Good Earth Plant Company. Just a few days ago, I ran across the original invitation to our dedication event and even a copy of my speech that day.

Today, the roof is still thriving and teaching us something new every day.

Looking back on this milestone anniversary, I admit I took a giant leap of faith installing the roof in 2007. But my whole career has been filled with leaps and innovation. The only difference here was how BIG a leap it was.

Since then, we’ve installed green roofs throughout Southern California, from private homes in San Diego and Los Angeles to the “Fallen Star” art installation at UCSD, still one of our all-time favorite projects.

How our green roof grew up to 15 years old

The old building roof undergoing its transformation to a green roof 15 years ago, recently found in our archives.

Our Kearny Mesa headquarters needed a new roof in the mid-2000s. I’d become fascinated with more significant projects than the workplace greenery designs we’d been providing to our clients up till then. It hit me that a roof is just one big container. So it should be easy to plant stuff on our roof container, right?

Thankfully I was smart enough to reach out for expert advice. Architect Robert Thiele provided design, architectural, and ultimately permitting guidance. Roofer Ulf Waldman had experience installing green roofs in his native Germany, got us sponsors for free materials, and provided the appropriate waterproofing layer. East Coast green roof guru Charlie Miller and West Coast green roof guru Paul Kephart were instrumental with guidance and details I was missing. Master Gardener Robin Rivet led a team of two volunteers to help get it planted.

The Good Earth Plant Company green roof seven years ago and today.

The Good Earth Plant Company green roof in 2007 and 2014.

In March 2007, we completed all the necessary engineering and installed the roof, including just three inches of growing media and several hundred plants. We were the first permitted green roof on an occupied commercial building in San Diego. At the time, there was no permit process in the City of San Diego. We ended up helping the City to write the first set of guidelines.

We planted more than a small green roof that day. It showed me I could dream bigger and work with other people to accomplish goals that seemed out of reach. It also kickstarted a new business model for Good Earth Plant Company and profoundly changed both the company and me.

Our student visitors enjoyed the chance to tour the Good Earth Plant Company headquarters green roof, the first permitted commercial green roof in San Diego.

Student visitors in 2019 enjoyed the chance to tour the Good Earth Plant Company headquarters green roof, the first permitted commercial green roof in San Diego. Photo: Noel Kim

In 2022 with the advantage of 15 years of lessons learned, we reflect on multiple award-winning client projects. Along with the green roof at UCSD (recently reopened for tours after being closed due to the pandemic), there were significant projects at Sharp Memorial Hospital and Miramar College. We installed multiple residential green roof projects for forward-thinking homeowners with the means to add a little biodiversity to their neighborhoods.

Pollinators including adult monarch butterflies count on food sources. The freesias growing on the Good Earth Plant Company green roof are ready! Photo: Jim Mumford

The original green roof at the Good Earth Plants headquarters is thriving. The natural Southern California Mediterranean ecosystem slowly took over the curated garden we planted with my blessing. One primary goal of this project was to learn what type of green roof design, system, and plants would thrive in our arid climate without a lot of rain, irrigation, or maintenance.

The original Sharp Memorial Hospital green roof, installed by GreenScaped Buildings in 2012.

The original Sharp Memorial Hospital green roof, installed by our GreenScaped Buildings in 2012.

It started with native plants only, not the usual sedums mix (which we found did not hold up well in our climate). Over time we have added multiple varieties of plants, calling it “our playground.” It has been seeded and reseeded many times over, with help from the local pollinators and birds. The wind and the birds brought in plants we didn’t put there ourselves. Milkweed attracts and feeds Monarch butterflies, nesting materials, and food sources from other plants. We also added a small birdbath. At different times we’ve hosted a bee apiary. It looks quite different than it did in 2007, but we love it more than ever. It’s taught us a lot about the evolution of these projects.

What does it take to install a green roof?

still growing

Joe Benedetti with a residential green roof project for a Santa Monica homeowner installed in 2020.

A green roof requires an upfront investment in engineering for the additional weight, a single-ply waterproofing layer, and artificial irrigation for the first few years. The payoffs: an eco-green roof helps process rainwater, reduce energy use, provides biodiversity, and can be expected to double or triple the life of the underlying conventional roof by protecting it from damage due to expansion and contraction due to temperature changes, debris, and UV radiation. This minimizes construction waste in our landfills. And they look much better than a conventional rooftop

Investments in green roofs remain limited in San Diego. We hope they’ll become feasible through the growth of solar energy projects, which show no signs of slowing down in San Diego County anytime soon. Green roofs and solar panels work well together.

When you go green and go solar at the same time, you can maximize your investment. Green roofs and solar panels make perfect partners. A green roof can improve the efficiency of your solar energy system by as much as 16 percent.

The organization Green Roofs for Healthy Cities reported that North American cities have established green roof building goals to address climate change and stormwater management objectives, including New York, Seattle, Toronto, San Francisco, Denver, and Washington DC.

What is a green roof?

Also known as eco-roofs, vegetated roofs, and living roofs, green roofs provide many ecological and aesthetic benefits, including:

  • Controlling stormwater runoff, erosion, and pollution
  • Improving water quality
  • Mitigating urban heat-island effects, cooling and cleaning the air
  • Conserving energy
  • Reducing sound reflection and transmission
  • Reducing heating and cooling energy costs
  • Creating wildlife habitats
  • Improving the aesthetic environment in both work and home settings

A green roof with four to six inches of growing media (referred to as an “extensive system”) may reduce a building’s cooling needs by 25 percent and prevent heat loss by 26 percent. This can be a substantial energy saving as every one degree Fahrenheit can reduce electricity use for air conditioning by eight percent. Add the bump you get in solar panel efficiency from a green roof, and the cost recovery happens quickly.

Germany has the largest concentration of green roofs with solar panels in the world. This is a school roof in Unterensinge, Germany, constructed in 2003. Photo: Courtesy Greenroofs.com database

Germany has the largest concentration of green roofs with solar panels in the world. This is a school roof in Unterensinge, Germany, constructed in 2003. Photo: Courtesy Greenroofs.com database

Your roof ends up providing benefits to your surroundings too. Lowering temperatures overall means lower energy consumption by turning down the air conditioning.

The need to build our solar energy capacity is more important than ever. We’re all feeling the pain of relying on expensive fossil fuels, including natural gas. Because of the ongoing drought in the western U.S. due to climate change, California’s electric power capacity is threatened because a significant amount comes from hydro-produced electricity at our dams. They’re so bone dry, hydroelectric systems may shut down this summer. During drought years (like now in 2022 despite this week’s rain), reducing energy use helps fill the gaps by generating electricity that involves burning fossil fuels.

San Diego County is leading the way. We generate more solar energy than any other county in California. Residential ownership is 85 percent.

San Diegans have taken full advantage of rebate programs over the years and the net-metering that (for now anyway) lets you sell your extra energy back to the grid. It’s time to take it one more step and increase your output by adding green on your roof when you go solar.

green roof

Green roofs benefit everyone. Contact us if we can build one for you.

Although we install many more living walls and moss walls than green roofs, I consider them an essential part of what we do at Good Earth Plant Company because they stretch our skills and fire up our creative thinking. That’s good for all our clients and our team to keep growing.

Want to talk about it? Contact us at Good Earth Plant Company, and we’ll figure out what works for you. We enrich peoples’ lives (and help lower your energy costs!) with plants.