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Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 07/02/2012

My renovation saga: Installing a green roof

While Mary McCutcheon takes a break, we have a new homeowner who is going to share her renovation saga.

This month I’ll surprise some on the block, hopefully in a good way. But no doubt it’ll be an eye-opener, especially for some of the longtime folks here in the Petworth neighborhood.  

If the permits come through, I’ll install a green (i.e., vegetated) roof on the front porch of my 1915 rowhouse, in view of residents, pedestrians and commuters. It’s a new thing for an old neighborhood, and for me as well, and it may take some getting used to. I hope to share the process and people’s reactions, including mine, on the Where We Live blog.
Annette Olson's home in Petworth (Photo by Annette L. Olson)

As a biologist and environmentalist, I’ve been familiar with green roofs for years, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person. When I mentioned I was building one, about half of my neighbors and friends asked what I meant and seemed taken aback when they found out it was a roof with plants, not environmental in some other way or painted green. “Green roof” designs basically consist of low plants in a growing medium (not soil). A drainage system, a root barrier and a waterproofing membrane sit between the plants and the roof deck. 

Green roofs absorb water when it rains, helping control stormwater runoff. Because of this benefit, the District, through the Anacostia Watershed Society, provides a rebate to help offset some of the cost.  For homeowners, green roofs also provide insulation and longterm roof protection. DC Greenworks, which will build the green portion of my roof, has a complete list of benefitsMy main reason is that I want to look out my bedroom windows at something green and living, not asphalt. 
The roof on Annette Olson's home (Photo by Annette L. Olson)
Thus, when it came time for my leaking porch roof to be replaced, I could not get the idea of a green roof out of my head.  I did waver for reasons I’ll outline in a future blog post (cost, structural changes, maintenance), but I decided to take the dive. 

My friends and family are supportive and encouraging, though my dad admits some trepidation about something so different.  Negative reactions so far have been about the potential cost (rightly so).  And my traditional roofer refused to rebuild the rotted roof deck to support a green roof; it just wasn’t something he wanted to get into. I found another by looking for eco-friendly roofers on Angie's List.  But in the end, I decided to go with Roof Solutions, which regularly builds green roofs with DC Greenworks.

I have talked with eight of my neighbors, one of whom exclaimed “How wonderful!” The other seven, after their initial astonishment, were fine with the project.  Not excited, but fine. The conversation often ended with “to each their own.” That’s the nice thing about Petworth — each person’s independence is generally accepted, even within such a physically close community.  
Petworth homes (Photo by Annette Olson)
It’s why there are colorful houses and pigs on columns, and classic houses as well.  (Petworth is not designated a historic neighborhood.)  It’s why I find the neighborhood much more interesting than my previous suburban existence.  Still, one neighbor wonders if some will think, “Is she growing weeds on her roof?” (I’ll be growing succulents such as sedum .) 

Petworth  has undergone a lot change (planting trees on the New Hampshire Avenue median, a farmer’s market, a jazz festival, house renovations). A close  neighbor, a longtime resident, was thrilled when D.C.’s RiverSmart program helped me install a rain barrel and rain garden two years ago.  She brought another neighbor to see it and to discuss getting rain barrels for the entire block.  Life got busy, however, and nothing happened.  She didn’t appear as excited about this project, though, but then she isn’t into gardening.

Green roofs are becoming more popular in this area (See Washington Post article): More than 125 roofs were installed in the District in 2011; five in my ward, Ward 4. Most have been on alley garages or main roofs above street level; a green roof on a front porch is more visible, so I am curious as to reactions from friends and neighbors once this is installed.

 Through DC Greenworks, I have started the permit and rebate applications. In a few weeks, the roof should be planted. I wonder how the construction will go and whether this roof will improve my view. I have many questions about this experiment, but I’m looking forward to it.

Annette L. Olson is a Petworth homeowner who will share her experience of installing a green roof on her rowhouse.

By Annette L. Olson  |  05:30 AM ET, 07/02/2012

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