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Gardens are growing on green roofs around town
All around the area are signs that Indianapolis is embracing the idea of creating a green community.

» The Nature Conservancy's new building boasts native plants and grasses and a unique system that preserves rainwater for flushing toilets and watering landscaping.

» At Franciscan St. Francis Health, gardens outside patients' windows create a healing environment at its new Southside facility.

» The Children's Museum is using a new "green" area outside its second-floor atrium and a rain garden as a way to become more sustainable and to educate visitors.

What makes these green initiatives new? They are doing it all on the rooftops, creating "green roofs" that essentially grow plants -- grasses, shrubs, trees, even vegetables, on the roof.

The budding but promising trend reflects an increased interest by Indy's organizations and businesses to be more environmentally friendly -- and to possibly save money in the long run.

"We're on the cutting edge of this," said Steve Hastings, vice president of landscape development at Becker Landscape Contractors, which has designed some 20 green roofs in the area.

"People are going to start understanding the usefulness of these roofs," he predicted. "Once things start to turn around, I think this trend will keep on growing."

It may take awhile, though, primarily because of the costs involved, often up to 1 1/2 to two times the cost of a traditional roof.

"It's a relatively expensive process because it is so new," said Mike Huntington, green roof specialist with AAA Roofing Co., which has installed nearly 20 green roofs. "But they're beautiful, instead of looking at a dirty, dingy roof."

Green roofs, also known as rooftop gardens, come in many shapes, sizes and types, depending on the roof size, financial investment and purpose. The roofs generally use a tray system, with pre-planted egg-crate-like trays that sit on the roof membrane. Or they are a multiple-layered system, with a drainage mat and moisture mat to retain water, covered with a light-weight soil mixture. Traditional soil is too heavy.

Many are planted with sedum, a ground cover with many varieties and colors of blooms. It doesn't require much water, deep soil or care -- ideal for a roof. But green roofs also can be planted with shrubs, flowers, small trees, native grasses and other plants -- even vegetables.

The benefits of green roofs are many, but Huntington said the one down side is the possibility of significant cost to fix them if they leak. With good contractors, he said, that shouldn't be a problem.

On the plus side, they can extend the life of the roof up to twice as long, save energy costs by providing insulation, create a wildlife habitat, reduce storm sewer overflow and lower urban air temperatures.

Many of those reasons led Keith Jewell, chief operating officer, and the senior leadership team of St. Francis Health to develop four sections of 32,900 square feet of green roofs at its new Indianapolis facility at 8113 S. Emerson Ave., which is still under construction.

The gardens, designed by Becker Landscape, have colorful sedum, native grasses and plantings such as purple cat mink flowers, serviceberry trees and boxwood bushes.

Even though St. Francis may not recoup its investment, Jewell said, hospital officials believe it is aesthetically the right thing to do for their patients.

"Many of our patient rooms look right out on these gardens," he said. "We thought it was better to have a beautiful healing environment to look at rather than traditional roof structures."

Huntington recently bid on creating a vegetable garden for residents to enjoy on the rooftop of an apartment complex. Planting vegetables is more unusual for a rooftop, but it can be done with better soil and more care, he said.

Generally, though, roofs of residential houses aren't built to carry the weight of soil needed for green roofs, Huntington said. Normally, green roofs are flat, but they can be somewhat slanted, using the right type of green roof system.

Wishard Hospital plans a large rooftop garden for its new Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital to open in December 2013 on West 10th Street. A first-of-its kind "sky farm" of some 5,000 square feet will grow organic foods to offer healthful diet options to patients, visitors and staff. The roof also will include non-food plants and shrubs.

The hospital's roof design will incorporate plant life and a white roof, which will lessen the solar-heat impact on the urban area, produce energy savings and create a more comfortable campus, said hospital spokesman Todd Harper.

Those goals and more motivated The Nature Conservancy to deeply integrate two green roof areas into plans for its new building, which has been constructed at 620 E. Ohio St.

The upper-level, 7,500-square-foot area is covered with a variety of sedum, using a pre-planted tray system -- black egg-crate-looking trays, 12 inches by 24 inches, placed on top of the roof membrane. Above a first-floor bump-out, a 750-square-foot area is packed with native plants, including grasses.

"It really fits our mission," said Adam McLane, director of operations. "We bring a lot of tour groups here. It showcases all the plants in the state."

The conservancy even took the green roofs a step further. It decided not to connect to the city's storm water system. So, rainwater not absorbed by the roofs flows into a 2,500-gallon basement cistern. The water is used to flush toilets and irrigate ground landscaping -- cutting water usage by 83 percent.

"We want to be a catalyst," said McLane, "for others to have green buildings, too."

Eli Lilly's four green roofs at its corporate headquarters at 893 S. Delaware St. also prevent more than 450,000 gallons annually of storm water from entering the city's sewer systems.

The 21,000 square feet of green roof, installed in 2009 and 2010, has 11 different types of sedum, said Beth Hunter, senior communication specialist for health, safety and environment.

"In the winter, they act as a layer of insulation to protect the buildings from wind and a drop in temperature," she said. "In the summer, they help drop air-conditioning costs."

University of Florida studies show energy savings can reach 15 to 30 percent. Other studies have shown that when the temperature is 95 degrees, a green roof can bring down roof temperatures to 77 degrees from 158 degrees.

The Children's Museum's 4,200-square- foot sedum green roof and rain garden were installed as part of its move toward sustainability, as well as to relieve stress on the city's storm sewers. Visitors can look at the area from the second-floor atrium.

"In reality, it's more of an educational tool for our visitors," said Michael Hay, associate vice president of facilities and safety. "We would like to see them walk away with a sense of what they can do differently at home to help preserve water and the planet.

"We want to get them fired up with the idea that this planet needs to be saved."

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