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When Re-roofing Becomes Re-planting

Springfield couple installing green roof on their home.

A Prius parked in the driveway of Anita Uyehara and Don Allen's home on Carrleigh Parkway gives the indication that this is a family who cares about the environment.

What can't be seen from the street, however, proves how dedicated they are to being environmentally-friendly: tarps covering an area that will soon be enclosed by a "green" roof.

"Both of us are environmental activists and have been for a while," said Uyehara in her living room, in front of an expansive window overlooking a backyard that already contains a composter and dozens of trees.

When their roof began to leak last year, instead of following the traditional path of sending Allen up to replace shingles, the couple decided to look at installing a green roof, made up of plants and a water filtration system to reduce the amount of water that falls to the ground after storms.

"We've already done some things in the house, like buying more energy-efficient appliances," Allen said. "This just seemed to be a natural next step."

Uyehara said she hopes her family might provide an example for their neighbors and others in Fairfax County, showing that "green" remodeling options are achievable.

"It was tough to get the permits because no one's done anything like this in the county," she said. "It was hard to find a contractor to work with, but we did some research and met with people who are familiar with this kind of project."

Uyehara and Allen have worked with DC Greenworks, an environmentally-minded design company in Washington, D.C., to design the roof and select the plants that will fill it.

"We'll be using sedum species, which are succulent plants that have fleshy, soft leaves and retain water," said Dawn Gifford, executive director of DC Greenworks. "The plants are like cacti, but without thorns. They come in every color and flower imaginable, so when it's fully seeded and comes into bloom after two growing seasons, it'll be very attractive."

NOT ONLY WERE the plants selected because of their ability to retain water, but they must be hearty enough to survive all winter, exposed to the elements. Many of the plants are evergreen, so even in the winter there will be something attractive to look at, Uyehara said.

The roof will be installed over a rotunda in the home, so the roof will have a four-degree pitch to it, which made designing the roof a little more difficult, Gifford said.

"Typically, a green roof will be built flat to collect as much rainfall as possible," Gifford said. Many of the 18 projects DC Greenworks have worked on included municipal buildings with flat roofs, which makes installation easier.

Extra consideration has to be given to the way the roof is built, Uyehara said. Steel beams will be installed under their roof to help hold up the extra weight of not only the rain that will fall and be retained in the roof, but also the soil substrate in which the plants will grow and the water filtration system which will be under the soil.

The concrete footing for the foundation to the new roof was approved last week, and Uyehara said she is hopeful the foundation will be poured soon.

"The timing is actually perfect, because it'll take about two months to build the roof which means it'll done in time to plant it before the weather gets too hot," she said.

WHILE UYEHARA and Allen might be among the first families in Fairfax County to integrate their green-thinking ways into their homes, Uyehara said she's not simply trying to be unconventional.

"We just wanted to show that it can be done," she said.

Allen pointed out some of the cement that was removed for the new foundation was re-used for their rock garden, keeping it out of a landfill.

"There's lots of ideas out there to help, there's all sorts of things people can do in their homes to make a difference," he said.

Erin May, project manager for the green roof from Robert Bentley Adams & Associates in Alexandria, said that despite the rarity of this sort of endeavor, designing the structural support for the roof was easy.

"They showed us a cross-section of what would be put on the roof and we figured out how to support it," she said. "If you know the pieces that go into it, you could almost go to Home Depot and do it yourself."

May said her company will build the addition on the home up to the base of the filtration system on the roof, which is where DC Greenworks will take over.

"A lot of the project is the aesthetics," she said. "Of the two green projects I've worked on, the people have decided to go green because they don't want to look out on an asphalt roof."

Environmentally-friendly techniques can be used in just about any remodeling project, May said, it just depends on how much money a homeowner is willing to invest.

"If people can even do a few small things, it's worth it," May said.

GREEN BUILDING has become more popular in the past few years, Gifford said, and the DC Greenworks Web site is getting more requests for information about green building practices.

"There's been an increased interest in being more environmental, especially after Hurricane Katrina and the talk of global warming," Gifford said. "People want to put their money where their mouth is, and not just in the grocery store."

She also credits movies like "An Inconvenient Truth" for spreading environmentally-conscious information to a wider audience.

"I really hope this becomes more commonplace," Gifford said. "Maybe one day, it'll be the natural choice."

Fairfax County is in the process of building two libraries, in Oakton and Burke, that are incorporating green techniques, said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence).

"We're also planning to do a green roof on the garage at the Herrity building as demonstration of different techniques you can use," said Smyth, who has a green roof on the shed in her office's parking lot.

As environmentally-friendly construction practices become more common, Smyth hopes developers will incorporate them into their projects.

"MetroWest [a new development at the Vienna-Fairfax-GMU Metro Station] will have a lot of low-impact development, including a green roof on the underground parking garage," she said. "They're also going to use pervious pavement which allows water in during rainstorms and underground water detention so when the water perks into the ground, it's cleaner."

With a fire station sharing her office parking lot, Smyth said the water used when washing the fire trucks is also taken underground through the pavement and is filtered, so the oil, soap and grime from the trucks doesn't get into the ground water.

Smyth said the county is also working on amending the public facilities manual to provide guidelines on green building, to make it easier for future projects like Uyehara and Allen's green roof to get started.