By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Green roofs have been growing in popularity for a few years now – with companies like Wal-Mart, Ford Motor Company, and GAP sporting vegetation-covered roofs on corporate headquarters, manufacturing plants, and retail outlets.

According to this New York Times article, there are many benefits to green roofs, although few of the benefits directly impact employees in the short term, in the workplace itself. Kate Galbreth writes:

“As well as giving workers from surrounding skyscrapers something pleasant to gaze at, green roofs help keep the city cool, and also filter stormwater so that it does not overwhelm drains.”

These are great benefits, of course, and today’s employees are calling for more environmentally responsible policies and actions at their companies. But your roof can do more.

Planting Rooftops for Employee Wellness

Last week the New York Times reported on the rise in popularity of corporate vegetable gardens. Kim Severson writes,

“As companies have less to spend on raises, health benefits and passes to the water park, a fashionable new perk is emerging: all the carrots and zucchini employees can grow.”

“Carved from rolling green office park turf or tucked into containers on rooftops and converted smoking areas, these corporate plots of dirt spring from growing attention to sustainability and a rising interest in gardening. But they also reflect an economy that calls for creative ways to build workers’ morale and health.”

In a major city like New York or London, where corporate campuses are measured in storeys rather than acreage, your skyscraper’s rooftop may have to serve as the planting ground for those carrots and zucchini. The garden rooftop provides the same benefits as the run-of-the-mill green roof (scenery, stormwater mitigation, and insulation), with the additional perks of free, fresh produce and the calming aspects many people seem to gain from gardening, as well as a few extra minutes of sunshine for corporate farmers.

Peggy Skinner, an Aveda employee at the company’s Minneapolis headquarters told Severson, “It does seem like work, but it’s a different kind of work from our regular workday.”

While the article notes several challenges presented by corporate gardens – such as motivating employees to stay involved with the project, health and safety concerns, and the simple question of what to wear on those days when one will be digging in the dirt – the benefits often outweigh the costs.

According to Severson:

“Tammy Binette, 40, arrives at the Quincy branch [of Harvard Pilgrim] 15 minutes before her 7 a.m. receptionist shift so she can water the crops. She harvests at lunch and sometimes drives extra produce to the local food bank.”

“Since all the beds are raised and the paths between them well tended, Ms. Binette just goes out in her dressy work shoes, taking them off and walking barefoot in the grass on nice days.”

A 15 minute barefoot break may not be appealing to everyone, but but many companies are finding that the short time spent outdoors is good for employee morale and productivity, and the fresh vegetables are one step in the right direction when it comes to employee wellness efforts.

From Green Roofs to Cool Roofs

Which vehicle would you prefer to climb into after its been sitting in a hot parking lot all day? A white one or a black one? The black one will be hotter because it’s absorbed the heat from the sun all afternoon. The white one will be cooler, because white has reflected that sunlight away.

Think of it this way: Roofs are (usually) black or gray, or dark colored. And they’re hot. Glaciers, on the other hand, are white, and of course, nice and cool.

According to Felicity Barringer’s article “By Degrees – White Roofs Catch On as Energy Cost Cutters,” turning your roof white can help save energy big time.

She writes:

“…Art Rosenfeld, a member of the California Energy Commission who has been campaigning for cool roofs since the 1980s, argues that turning all of the world’s roofs “light” over the next 20 years could save the equivalent of 24 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide emissions.”

“’That is what the whole world emitted last year,’ Mr. Rosenfeld said. ‘So, in a sense, it’s like turning off the world for a year.'”

As part of its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, New York City is implementing the NYC °Cool Roofs program, with volunteers working to to coat nearly a quarter of a million square feet of city-owned rooftops with the reflective white paint. According to a press release:

“A cool roof absorbs 80 percent less heat than traditional dark colored roofs and can lower roof temperatures by up to 60 degrees and indoor temperatures by 10 to 20 degrees on hot days. The decrease in temperature reduces the need for air conditioning, lowering electric bills and reducing energy consumption.”

Saving energy and, on a broader scale, reducing ambient air temperatures, cool roofs can help your company save money and engage with sustainability-minded employees. It’s an idea that makes sense.