Ecoroofs spring up around Oregon


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After years of meticulous planning, Debra and Corey Omey have a roof that blooms, buds, grows and sprouts as the seasons change.

// Photos by Matthew D’Annunzio

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Even though Debra and Corey Omey had stayed up late assembling a scaffold, stairs and a railing to their rooftop, they woke up early one spring morning in 2009. They made coffee, dipped into a box of Voodoo doughnuts and thought about the 200 to 300 tiny plants they’d bought the day before.

Five types of sedums and clumps of Elijah Blue fescue were rooting into plugs of soil in plastic trays, but soon they’d be adjusting to a new home two stories above the ground, along with some grape hyacinth bulbs.

It was ecoroof-planting day for the Omeys, who live in the Overlook neighborhood of North Portland, an event that was years in the making.

Corey, an architect at Ernest R. Munch, first learned about ecoroofs — roofs planted with live vegetation instead of conventional materials, like asphalt shingles — as a “future trend” in the mid-’90s, when he was studying architecture at the Universityof Michigan. It wasn’t until he went to Europe in 2000 and saw ecoroofs on so many homes and public buildings that Corey really stared considering living roofs as a practical, employable solution to a range of environmental problems, including overflowing storm-water systems, abundant energy use and poor air quality.

For the Omeys, an ecoroof seemed like the only appropriate way to top their 1925 home, which they’d gutted and remodeled using a whopping 90 percent sustainable and recycled materials.

“Installing an ecoroof was a chance to educate other people about recycled materials and energy efficiency,” Corey says. “It was about showing how we live and what our values are.”

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Corey uses a safety harness when weeding near the roof’s edge. Weeding needs to be done a couple times a year on any live roof.

From the sidewalk, you can only see one section of the ecoroof. But it’s enough to inspire strangers passing by to ask the Omeys lots of questions.



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Ecoroofs need the most attention during the summer months, when regular watering is imperative.

// Photos by Matthew D’Annunzio

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On planting day, the couple invited neighbors, friends and colleagues to help install the roof. About two dozen people showed up. Some filled buckets with soil and rocks, while others formed a human chain to pass the buckets to the roof. A handful of people squatted on the roof itself, where they nestled plant starts into a special soil mix.

These days, the Omeys observe the clusters of otherworldly looking sedums and clumps of fescue grass from the guest bedroom or through a window in the master bedroom’s closet.

The project was such a success that the Omeys have installed two more ecoroofs on their home: one over the breezeway that connects the house to the garage, and one on the east side of the garage’s roof, an “eco-eave” with a 4-foot width (the roof’s steep slope couldn’t accommodate an entire ecoroof). And they plan to add an eco-eave to the west side of the garage roof as well.

But the front roof remains the conversation starter. Passersby want to know: Why choose to cover a roof with soil and plants?

It’s a good question, and one that the City of Portland hopes even more Portlanders will ask. That’s because while ecoroofs offer many benefits — including extending the life of a roof by two times that of a conventional roof and reducing a building’s heating and cooling costs — they also reduce and slow the volume of storm-water runoff entering the combined sewer system, two major goals of the storm-water management program.

For example, the Omeys frequently watch water drip down a rain chain into a metal sculpture in their front yard, a process that takes hours instead of the minutes during which a conventional roof would shed the same rainwater.

To help inspire property owners to join the green-roof club, the City of Portland offers a $5-per-square-foot incentive on all ecoroof installations. Since the program began in 2008, the city has helped fund almost 180 projects, about half of which were residential.

“We’ve had a lot of success over the last five years, despite the conditions of the economy,” says Matt Burlin, environmental program coordinator for the City of Portland. “Five dollars can cover a large amount of the expenses,” which typically range from $10 to $40 per square foot.

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The Omeys usually observe their live roof from indoors, venturing on top just a couple times a year, usually to pull weeds.

A Buddha statue from the Orpins’ previous garden now adds sculptural and spiritual intrigue to the rooftop.



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Jonathan and Maxine Orpin work in the studios that look out over the lower level ecoroof.

// Photos by Matthew D’Annunzio

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While planning an ecoroof can seem daunting, the city offers a number of public educational events, including an annual symposium. That’s where Jonathan Orpin and his wife, Maxine, found everything they needed to move forward with an ecoroof on their detached studio in Southwest Portland.

“Not only did we learn a huge amount about ecoroofs,” he says, “but we found the vendors who ended up supplying us with plants and the medium into which we planted.”

The Orpin ecoroof spreads across two planes of the almost flat-pitched roof of the studio, headquarters for New Energy Works, the Orpins’ company, which designs and builds timber frames. On the lower level, flat stones float among the plants, as a Buddha statue brought from the garden in their previous home silently watches birds alight on the rooftop.

Because of the growing popularity of ecoroofs, homeowners have options. They can hire a professional to plan and install the roof or take a more DIY approach, by sourcing materials and doing all the construction and planting.

The Orpins chose a middle ground; professionals designed and installed the roof, and the couple did some of the planting. “We wanted to help plant the sedums because we wanted to play with patterns and have fun,” Jonathan says. “The pattern was pure whimsy.”

He says the roof comes to life during the spring, a season when he can mark the evolution of what was planted three years ago. “The sedums start to sprout new shoots, and you can see another year of growth.”

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The living roof covers a free-standing studio, which couldn’t hold much weight on top. So the couple found a lightweight soil mixture that could be planted at just 2 1/4-inch depth.