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Green Roofs—Do They Work?

Green roofs are being built in large cities to provide stormwater management, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improve air quality—but are they effective?   John Buck, an innovative soil scientist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been trying to quantitatively answer this question in many different cities using soil monitoring equipment in order to determine the efficacy and best types of green infrastructure for managing stormwater.  

Green Roofs

A green roof installation site at the Allegheny County Office Building in Pennsylvania.

Why Green Roofs?

In older cities, stormwater runoff is typically combined with sewage flows, and these combined waters are treated at a sewage treatment plant during dry weather and light rain events. Unfortunately, during more substantial storms (sometimes just a few mm of rain) the combined flows exceed the ability of the sewage treatment plant, and are discharged without treatment to surface waters as “combined sewage overflows” (CSOs). One of the ways to mitigate CSOs is to capture and store stormwater to keep it out of the combined sewer.  

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material with high infiltration rates.  During a storm event, water will soak into the air-filled pore space in the substrate, which acts like a sponge to soak up the rain. Excess water will flow into a subsurface drainage layer and will leave the roof garden via existing roof drains. Because a substantial fraction of the stormwater is stored in the substrate, it can later dissipate through evapotranspiration instead of contributing to stormwater volume and CSOs.

Green Roofs

Researchers are using soil moisture sensors for measuring temperature, bulk electrical conductivity and volumetric water content in green roofs and green infrastructure.

Finding Answers

Designers and regulators want to know how well green roofs work and if they are being over-engineered. They want answers to questions such as: “What sort of substrate should I be using? What type of plants can survive green roof conditions? Will I need to irrigate the green roof when there are no storms to water the plants?” and, “Will the green roof work as well during a one-inch storm that occurs over a half hour versus a five-inch storm that occurs over five days?”  

Buck is using soil lysimeters and modified tipping bucket rain gauges to measure the quantity, intensity, and quality of water coming into and going out of the green roofs.  He also tracks weather parameters and calculates daily evapotranspiration of landscapes.  Using soil sensors, he measures electrical conductivity (dissolved salts), volumetric water content, and temperature.  He has installed data loggers that send data to the web via GSM cellular connection, allowing stakeholders access to the data in real-time.  This data telemetry provides additional data security, immediately updated results, instant feedback of system problems, and an easy way to share data with others.

Green Roofs

Visualized data of the 87% annualized runoff reduction at Phipps Conservatory green roof site in Pittsburgh, PA.

What Has Been Learned?

Buck discovered that green roofs have much more capacity than people ever imagined.  At The Penfield Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota, the green roof retained enough water to reduce runoff to about half of a conventional roof, and the peak intensity of the runoff was about one-quarter of what it would have been without the green roof.  At Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, there was an 87% annualized runoff reduction and almost no runoff from typical summer rain events.  Buck comments, “Interestingly, on the Penfield project, we expected better hydrologic performance where soils were thicker, but there was no difference, or results were slightly the reverse of expectations. That reversal was likely due to the confounding influence of irrigation, which was probably non-uniform and not metered or measured by the rain gauge.”

Next week:  Read about some of the challenges John Buck sees for the future, and what kind of measurements he suggests researchers make, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

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