In 2007, Molly Meyer, a Chicago-based Stanford graduate, received a fellowship to work for a year on her green roof education or, more technically, work for a year on honing her skills as a soil biogeochemist.
The Bosch Fellowship is dedicated to facilitating and funding research as a way to cement trans-Atlantic relations with Germany—a surprisingly good fit for someone in the plant-covered architecture business. In the United States, green roof and living wall infrastructure is considered a nascent industry—novelty, rather than norm—whereas it has been a part of standard construction in Germany for almost two decades.
The country started experimenting with green roofs in the 1970s, and by the 80s there were policies in place to encourage it and guidelines for best practices in maintenance, installation, and design. The 1998 German Federal Building Code provides opportunities to set requirements for green roofs; 48 German cities give financial support for them, and they account for 14 percent of the country's total roof area.
While completing her crash course in design and construction, Meyer quizzed industry veterans to learn why the German market had evolved, and the conditions that had encouraged an environmental measure to be adopted so widely. "I talked to a lot of a folks from the generation who were students in the '80s experimenting with technology and figuring out what worked, and learning about the political activism they'd done to get the industry to grow," she says.
The key, she found, had been the development of policies and incentives that kept the checkbooks balanced. Green roofs proved to be one of the best solutions for storm water run-off, and "what was initially a student movement to get greenery into urban settings turned into something that made sense to developers and finance guys, because there was a very clear payback when storm water incentives were in place," says Meyer.
Returning to the U.S. in 2008, she worked as a consultant and contractor in the budding local green roof industry. There she came across a series of failed green roofs. Seeing a gap in the market, Meyer partnered with Michael Repkin, an ecological designer specializing in biological resource recovery and sustainable food production, to create something that would address those issues, and launched her company, Omni Ecosystems.
The company's strategy is inspired by the common sense German model of offering both fiscal and environmental benefits, while also addressing the specific issues facing American green roofs. "In the U.S., there are performance goals German users don't have, such as plant biodiversity, minimizing weight loads, and creating usable green spaces," says Meyer.
The two invented a system of infrastructure that was far lighter than what then existed, and permitted a wider range of plants to grow. Meyer designed drainage and irrigation systems for both green roofs and living walls, while Repkin developed proprietary growing media and soils that allow native plant species to flourish and that support food production.
Since then, Omni Ecosystems has worked on projects as diverse as a 6,400-square-foot lawn in the extreme environment atop Chicago's AMA Tower, a 52-story skyscraper designed by Mies van der Rohe, and Homestead, a downtown seasonal farm-to-table rooftop restaurant where diners are seated in the food meadow in which many of the menu ingredients are grown.
Her most exciting project, however, is one that's still in the pipeline: a 16,000-square-foot green roof installed on a renovated 1920s building. The most tantalizing tidbit: since its 2007 renovation, the building has been collecting data on its own energy usage.
"This is a unique opportunity, because usually it's very hard to quantify the differences in energy usage and a green roof's ability to impact thermal performance," she says. "This will provide an actual case study where we're able to compare the last seven years of data with the coming years, and illustrate the financial paybacks for green roofs. It's easy to have a grand vision of ways to make cities more sustainable, but there has to be an assurance that the financial side works out as well as the environmental side."