The Benefits of a Living Roof

by heather

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

In the process of planning my shipping container micro home, I’ve been playing with the idea of adding a living roof to the final design.

The idea is almost magical, isn’t it? Taking the unused space of a roof and turning it into a living, breathing garden…it really gets my heart pumping with excitement.

The Benefits Of Living Roofs

One of the most obvious benefits to living roofs (which are also called green roofs, or greenroofs) is the insulation factor. Living roofs help keep the interior of your home at a stable temperature. Plants and soil are really great insulators, which means you’ll save money on your heating and cooling costs.

Walt Quade, who designed his own green home with a living roof (the pink home right below), says that the temperature in his home never changes more than 3 or 4 degrees, no matter what it’s like outside.

Quade home, Courtesy of

Quade home, Courtesy of

Ford Motor Company has the largest living roof in the world. The company transformed the roof of their Rouge factory into a 10.4-acre garden, and they report that the living roof has lowered their heating and cooling costs by 5%. In a factory that large, that’s some significant savings.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Another major benefit to a living roof is the fact that it filters rainwater. When the water falls on a typical roof, it’s often funneled off into storm water drains, collecting pollution along the way.

When rain falls on a living roof, however, it’s filtered naturally just as it is in the wild. This means you can reuse this clean water in your home or garden.

Living roofs also help attract wildlife to your yard. And depending on what you plant, it can also be a food source for you, or your furry friends.

Living roofs also work great at filtering noise. They keep your home as quiet as the local library on a Sunday afternoon. Bliss.

Types of Green Roofs

There are two main types of green roofs: extensive and intensive.

Living roof at the California Academy of Sciences

Living roof at the California Academy of Sciences

Extensive living roofs have a very shallow growing base, and don’t support a full garden. The variety of plants you can put on an extensive living roof is small; you need plants that have a shallow root system, like sedum. Extensive living roofs are for structures that can’t support a lot of weight. They typically weigh 10-50 lbs. per square foot, fully saturated, depending on what types of plants and rocks you use.

They’re also cheaper to build because they have fewer layers. Extensive living roofs are usually 2.5-6 inches deep.

Intensive living roofs have a much deeper root base. This is the “full garden” effect, and you have a much wider variety of plants to choose from (including trees up to 15 feet tall). But, intensive living roofs are very heavy; they typically weigh 80-120 lbs. per square foot, fully saturated.

Intensive living roofs are, you guessed it, more expensive to build. They are usually at least 8-12 inches deep (and normally go much deeper), and require many more layers than an extensive system.

Living Roof Considerations

Black Sheep House, courtesy of

Black Sheep House, courtesy of

Ok, obviously you can’t just throw some soil up on your roof, plant some basil, and be done. Do that and you’ll have a soggy, leaky, muddy mess on your hands.

Building a living roof so that it drains well and doesn’t leak into your home takes careful planning and definite know-how. You have to consider these factors:

  • Waterproofing
  • Insulation
  • Drainage
  • Filter Fabric
  • Plant Choice
  • Water Storage and Irrigation

Am I going to go into how to build a living roof? No. I have zero experience on this, and don’t feel comfortable going into each step when I haven’t even done it myself yet. I’ll leave that to the professionals. But, don’t despair! I found tons of great resources you can head to if you’re ready to build your own living roof. Those will be posted at the end of this article.

You can also check out this neat schematic of a living roof…

Courtesy of The Garland Company

Courtesy of The Garland Company

How Much Do Living Roofs Cost?

According to, extensive systems are going to run anywhere from $14-$25 per square foot. Intensive systems run $24-$40 per square foot on up.

But, they say these numbers can vary pretty widely, depending on how much work/research you do on your own. The Ford Motor Company green roof I mentioned above only cost $4 per square foot to build (but again, their green roof is over 500,000 square feet…)

Living Roof Resources

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

So, has the idea of a living roof start growing, no pun intended, in your imagination? Yeah, I figured as much.

Here are some additional resources you can check out to learn more:

  • Dream Green HomesThis cool site has tons of green home plans you can purchase. The link will take you directly to one plan that incorporates a living roof. Lots of great pictures on this site of completed green homes.
  •– Everything you need to know about green roofs, and how to build one. Don’t miss their “Green Roofs 101” section.

Last Word…

Yep, it’s safe to say I definitely want a living roof on my shipping container home. What’s not to love here? They’re insulating, they filter rainwater, and provide a food source all in one. Amazing.

If any of you have a living roof, or are currently planning for one, I’d love to hear what your experience has been like. Have you had problems with drainage or weight issues? Write in and let me know!

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Trevor @ Financial Nut March 18, 2009 at 7:56 pm

Seriously! What a cool idea. I guess I’ve never REALLY seen a green roof before, other than maybe in Lord of the Rings or something (I’m such a nerd).

Great post. Very informative.

Francis February 17, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Hello Fellow Green person! I’ve been working on a project to for college, but could not find numbers to suport the cooling claims. I do realize the coolness of being in a cave like bermed house but just how cool in comparison? Could you direct me to a site please?

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