How to expand your business model by offering green roof services

By Jennifer Foden

Green roofs

So, you’re a landscape contractor looking to expand your business model by offering green roof services. I spoke to four landscape professionals (who are designing and building green roofs) about what you need to know to break into this growing market. They are as follows:

  • Leslie Herndon, senior client relations manager and floriculturist, Greenscape Inc.
  • Jon Crumrine, president, Enviroscapes Northwest, Inc.
  • John Vlay, president, Jensen Landscape Contractors
  • Rose Seeger, owner and president, Green City Resources

Q: Have you always offered green roof services as a landscape contractor? If not, how, and why, did you get into this market? And what steps did you take to do so?

Herndon: We have not. Greenscape Inc. is a commercial and residential design/build/manage landscape company in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area. We have done some green roof projects over the years, but not on a regular basis. They were usually planter-style projects, and usually done as part of a greater landscape installation project. We started with green walls about five years ago, and just began in the green roof market with a hospital in our area. The roof was existing, and we did a renovation (after it had been neglected for a few years by a previous contractor). There are not that many green roofs in our market, so the demand really has not been in place. But as a result of our work, we have recently been asked to bid on another larger project.

Crumrine: Enviroscapes Northwest was started as a specialty contractor focusing specifically on green roofs. I learned of green roofs in the early 2000s while planning a career change. I took classes, I studied, and eventually I took a position in business development with a landscape contractor so I could learn the landscape construction business. When I thought the timing was right, and I had enough experience, I started Enviroscapes Northwest.

Vlay: In 1994, Jensen was asked to do a design/build green roof for GAP Headquarters in San Bruno, California. When asked if we could, I said “sure,” and then figured out how to do it. We worked with Paul Kephart (now with Rana Creek) to design the plant palette, and we designed the drainage, soil mix and irrigation system. We then installed everything including the plants and seed. We tested several drainage systems, and spoke with many soil experts and suppliers to determine these components. We originally installed a pop-up irrigation system at the perimeter of the roof spraying inward with full heads further in. This irrigation system worked great to establish and water the plants. However, once the building was occupied, we received complaints that the employees were getting wet from irrigation water blowing off the roof. We fixed this problem by moving the half heads 15 feet in from the edge and using Netafim [a drip irrigation system] for the 15-foot perimeter of the building roof. We have been installing green roofs ever since.

Seeger: I started Green City specifically to do green roof and stormwater services. I started taking green roof classes from the industry association Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, and I went to a couple of conferences for workshops and classes. Then I started learning about roofing as much as I could. I took construction management courses and crane training. Many green roofs are LEED certified, so I studied and became a LEED AP in new construction. As far as irrigation, I didn’t like sub-contracting that out, so I went to Cincinnati State for some irrigation classes. I feel like the training and certifications helped to show we were taking steps to move above and beyond regular landscaping, and we could offer a valuable service to the construction manager and the architect.

Q: What advice would you offer to landscapers new to the green roof market? What types of staff, tools, training, equipment and expertise are required to succeed?

Herndon: Be aware of the safety rules first and foremost, and make sure you get any required safety training or certifications. We sent several [members] of our team for aerial and scissor lift training before we started on this green roof work. In our city there was recently a fatal lift accident, and it was determined that the individuals had not been adequately trained. Other than that, make sure you talk to the manufacturers and get as many tips as you can. I really learned a lot at last year’s CitiesAlive: Green Roof & Wall Conference in Nashville [Tenn.]. It was a great way to get an introduction into the market and to help determine what more we had to learn. And there is a lot! I plan on attending again this year.

Crumrine: Green roof construction is a completely different type of landscape construction. The site logistics for staging and receiving materials, lifting to the work site, and keeping workers safe are much more complicated than working on the ground. The only real way to learn how to do it successfully is to hire someone with experience. The only way you can get good at the means and methods to install green roofs is by doing it, or hiring someone who has done it. And the risks associated with the first are daunting.

Vlay: There are three keys to success with green roofs. (1) Safety, because you are normally several stories above ground level. (2) Hoisting materials onto the roof and to their final locations. This can be done with cranes, Gradalls, conveyor belts and/or blowers. (3) Maintenance, because soil is usually a lightweight blend that drains rapidly and can be fairly shallow. Special attention must be paid to the watering requirements that can be very different and more demanding than landscaping at ground level. Also, it can be windy several stories up, and there is usually very little shade, which requires a greater level of care for maintenance crews monitoring the irrigation system.

Seeger: My advice to landscapers looking to take it to the next level is training. Being on the roof is a lot different than on the ground — fall protection is key. Everyone needs to be trained and understand the hazards. Crane training is also important. Insurance and workers’ compensation is a different category on the roof as well, so understand what responsibilities you should take on, and which you shouldn’t. Also, plant choices are different on the roof. The hardiest plant on the ground may not have a chance on a roof.


Q: How do you set yourself apart from the rest of the green roof market?

Herndon: We are really currently focused in our current market and providing full exterior landscape services for our clients. We see this as an extension to that, and our niche is that we are now providing another service that our clients can come to us for and not have to seek additional contractors. Property and facility managers are pressed for time, and know very little about green roofs or walls. If we can be a source of information and service for them in an existing relationship, they love that. The trust is already in place.

Seeger: The beginning is very hard; anyone can underbid you and everyone wants to try something new. Selling yourself as the expert when you are just beginning can be tricky. All the classes in the world won’t give you the experience you get on the roof, but it will help, so make sure you understand the green roof system before you dive in. Continued maintenance on a roof that you install will make it a success, so try to stay on at least for the first year. I usually tell my clients, you won’t be able to get rid of me for a year.

Jennifer Foden is a writer and editor based in Toronto. She was previously the editor of the Living Architecture Monitor, North America’s green roof and wall magazine.

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