Greener Chicago landscaping can cut energy costs from the rooftop down

Greener Chicago landscaping can cut energy costs from the rooftop down

Up carpeted stairs and out a door, Michelle Grunfeld finds sanctuary where plants grow, atop her 5,600-square-foot, two-story home in bustling north central Chicago.

“It’s pretty nice and secluded up there,” says Grunfeld, who paid highly rated Annette Held Landscape Design in Chicago about $6,000 to install a rooftop garden.

Company owner Annette Held planted sedums, prairie grasses and ornamental trees on the roof bounded by 42-inch brick walls. The garden provides indoor benefits as well. “It absorbs heat so well that my bedroom stays cooler,” Grunfeld says.

The plants and soil underlaid by sturdy plastic trays and thick landscape fabric buffer against temperature fluctuations, which allowed her to bid adieu to a loud whole-house fan and rely less on air conditioning in the summer.

With the prevalence of flat roofs and scarcity of yards in some dense areas of Chicago, a growing number of residents plant sky high.

“The interest in rooftop gardens has definitely increased in the past few years,” says Bill McCaffrey, spokesman for the City of Chicago’s Department of Buildings, who’s seen a rise in requests for municipal, business and residential building permits that include rooftop gardens, or green roofs.

On the ground, experts say thoughtful landscaping — including planting trees to shade the home — also improves energy efficiency and reduces resources expended.

Grunfeld never tracked energy savings that resulted from her rooftop garden, but for a new home with a similar-sized garden covering 1,300 square feet of roof, savings amount to a modest $65 annually, according to the Green Roof Energy Calculator. The industry association Green Roofs for Healthy Cities developed the calculator with the University of Toronto and Portland State University.

Held says rooftop gardens cost about twice as much as comparable ground landscapes in part because of labor to get materials up there. But GRHC says a properly installed green roof can double or triple a roof’s average life span from 10 to 15 years to 30 to 40 years by reducing exposure to the elements and temperature fluctuations that cause membranes to age.

They also provide environmental benefits, such as improving air quality as plants filter noxious gases and reduce dust and airborne pollutants. Held advises anyone considering a rooftop garden to seek a landscaper with requisite experience who knows the load limits on your roof.

In the yard, opportunities also abound to green landscapes and improve energy efficiency. “Landscaping is a regional affair,” says Dan Wells, owner of highly rated Elan Landscape Development in Libertyville, Ill.

He advocates planting native species that require little or no watering and fertilizing long-term. Wells also suggests planting tall deciduous trees on the south side and mid-sized trees and shrubs on the west side of the home to block sun in the summer and reduce air conditioning costs. Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall, so sunlight can still warm the home during the winter.

Angie’s List member Ray Schwartz of Bartlett, Ill., realizes energy savings when the sun sets since highly rated Apple Blossom Landscape Concepts in St. Charles, Ill. installed an LED low-voltage outdoor system, part of a larger $10,000 project to improve drainage and spruce up the yard.

“The neighbors comment that we have the nicest landscaping in the neighborhood,” he says, adding that the bulbs reduce electricity costs. “The savings is like 75 percent.”

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