Planting green space on roofs, such as this one at Hamline, is a growing trend -- and a growing market for Bachman's.
Ken Dehkes, who led the green roof project atop Hamline University’s new Anderson Center, secured the rooftop garden area last week on the school’s St. Paul campus. Bachman’s and a Michigan company called LiveRoof are installing this and other green roofs in the Twin Cities.
There's a quiet creep of green moving across the rooftops of the Twin Cities, with succulent sedum, purple plugs of allium and other hearty plants replacing rock and tar.
Recently, Twin Cities garden giant Bachman's Inc. and a Michigan firm called LiveRoof installed an 1,800-square-foot green roof atop the new student center at Hamline University in St. Paul.
The Anderson Center's green roof is a swath of hearty perennials that hugs a third-floor terrace. "It's functional, but for us, there's a distinct aesthetic value," said Ken Dehkes, Hamline's director of facilities operations and horticultural services.
The green roof phenomenon -- growing plants on rooftops -- has been quietly catching on here and nationwide, mostly as new public and corporate buildings gradually pop up in a slow economy. Experts point to the roofs' ecological and economic benefits, including storm water management, energy conservation, improved air quality, creation of new wildlife habitat and mitigation of the "urban heat island effect" -- where cities are significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas.
For Bachman's, which celebrates its 127th birthday this year, adding the green roof component to its business proved a timely move, especially after the economy stumbled in 2008. Bachman's has inserted itself in the thick of this trend by partnering with LiveRoof, a division of Hortech Inc., a privately held Spring Lake, Mich.-based wholesale nursery. Bachman's was named LiveRoof's exclusive regional distributor and grower in 2006 for Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
"It's helped us in the sense that in the last couple of years, it's been a tough market for us," said Doug Danielsen, a Bachman's employee who also serves as LiveRoof's sales rep. "But it's really starting to explode, and all over the Midwest."
While the privately held Bachman's doesn't release financial information, the overall garden market suffered mightily during the Great Recession. Total retail sales of lawn and garden products plunged 16 percent from 2008 to 2009 to $30 billion, according to the National Gardening Association. However, the Vermont-based group's most-recent survey indicates the market has stabilized.
The partnership with LiveRoof, the terms of which remain private, "seemed like it was the right thing to do; it made absolute sense for us," said CEO Dale Bachman. He predicts green roof sales will be the biggest ever this year in terms of revenue.
Although green roofs usually cost more upfront than conventional roofs, proponents claim they last longer, sometimes 45 years or more, according to a Michigan State University report.
Plus, they look nice.
"People love them. They're captivated and fascinated by them," said Craig Wilson, CEO of Sustology, a Minneapolis environmental consulting firm that designs and installs green roofs. "The technology is proven, although I'd say the industry is still in its toddler stage in the United States." His firm was involved in the mother of all green roofs in Minnesota, a 2.5-acre verdant swath atop Target Center.
Bachman's and LiveRoof are preparing to install a green roof on the Phase 2 building of the University of Minnesota's Biomedical Discovery District. And it's already installed roofs at St. Joseph's Hospital, Woodbury City Hall -- even the liquor store in Apple Valley.
But green isn't an option for every roof. Most of the recent installations around the Twin Cities has involved new construction -- the roofs had to be engineered properly to handle additional weight. And retrofitting existing roofs for green space is best considered on a case-by-case basis, engineers say. Plus, there's no guarantee the plants will thrive.
Still, the idea itself isn't so foreign. Midwestern settlers used sod roofs to buffer themselves from the elements. Germany has led the way in the modern green roof revolution, which became popular in Stuttgart in the early 1980s, according to D. Bradley Rowe, a professor in Michigan State's Department of Horticulture.
Today, the Twin Cities' marketplace for green roofs is fragmented, between firms dedicated to them and traditional roofing companies. Some green roof firms went out of business in the recession.
"When we were building our original grower network, there was no question as to who we wanted to work with in Minnesota," said Dave MacKenzie, horticulturalist and president of Hortech. "We approached Bachman's to grow our products because they have a reputation as the local horticultural experts who provide high-quality products and top-level customer service."
To date, Hortech's LiveRoof division has been involved in more than 600 installations nationwide, totalling more than 2 million square feet. Systems for green roofs vary depending on the manufacturer and the job itself. LiveRoof uses a series of trays preplanted with flora cultivated at Bachman's 700-acre horticultural complex near Farmington. Specially engineered soil has to be cultivated for the trays with the depth varying from 2.5 inches to 8 inches. The trays are then pieced together like a puzzle.
Costs vary, too. Simple systems can cost as little at $15 per square foot, but other budgets set aside $25 to $30 a square foot, according to the Minnesota Green Roof Council. LiveRoof's product carries a 20-year warranty.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752