Living Roofs and Wages

John Scholten says business is booming at LiveRoof, a new division of Hortech nursery that specializes in designing, growing, and delivering the innovative plugs of mature plants required to build modern green roofs.

The company, which is based in Spring Lake, MI, just minutes east of Lake Michigan, illustrates the kinds of entrepreneurs and business opportunities the Great Lakes region could cultivate by formalizing green building practices and incentives in state and local ordinances and investing more heavily in environmental protection and restoration.

"They were originally hiring one sales specialist to get this thing up and runnning," Scholten told me today. "But three people applied for the position and they ended up hiring all three."

"It turned out to be the right move," Scholten added. "If it was just me I'd be fried."

It's no surprise business is brisk. The idea of selling a better green roof comes as progressive leaders around the world search for smarter ways to manage rising energy, construction, and building maintenance costs, protect air and water quality, and promote sustainable development in their communities.

Green roofs can reduce heating and cooling expenses, improve storm water management, help filter pollution, and decrease maintenance and roof replacement costs, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a nonprofit industry association working to promote the vegetated roof concept throughout North America. The group also says green roofs can help minimize greenhouse gases as well as increase worker productivity and decrease health care costs as employees benefit from exposure to the natural environment. What's more, installing green roofs helps to create jobs for a variety of suppliers and manufacturers, contractors and landscapers, and nurseries like Hortech.

John Scholten is proof of that. The idea for his eventual position and the LifeRoof venture was first planted when Ford Motor Company approached Hortech, a respected grower of ground cover, particularly low maintenance drought resistant plantings, about growing some 250,000 plants for what, at the time, was one of the largest green roofs in the world to be built atop the company's River Rouge facility.

The roof, so far, has proven a resounding success. (It's attracting ecotourists to an automobile assembly plant in Detroit.) And it wasn't long before Chicago was calling for help on a similiar project.

Long story short, Hortech recognized early on the emergence of a promising niche market and the opportunity to lead it. So they've innovated what the company refers to as the "first prevegetated modular green roof system developed by growers and specifically designed to grow plants on a rooftop environment." That's a fancy way of saying they came up with a way to grow sizeable chunks of plants at a nursery and deliver them to the construction site ready to install. Piece 'em together and, presto, green roof.

Despite the lack of public policies to take advantage of many the economic and enviromental benefits of green roofs, Hortech sees rapidly rising demand for the technology and they're positioning to tap what could be a highly lucrative industry.

"We just bought another 30 acres," Scholten said. "And we've got an option on 60 more."