Benefits from having Rooftop Ecologies

There are numerous benefits of having a rooftop ecology on your building. They are identical to the reasons that the building industry has to change.  Moving the building industry in Japan to realise these changes is part of the reason for existence.

The listed benefits are with a few exceptions as outlined in the Rocky Mountain Institute paper Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate (1998), which was summarized in the seminal work on ecology and economy” The Natural Advantage of Nations” by The Natural Edge Project of Australia.

The advantages as listed in chapter 18 of the Natural Advantage of Nations are as follows..


Product differentiation

Market niche (health and productivity, green investment)

Streamlined design costs.

Reduced capital costs

Reduced operating costs

Increased market value (value premium) for the developer

Faster leasing (absorption/occupancy rate) with increased rents for the building manager

Customer mortgage and rebate incentives (reducing the up front capital costs means reduced pay back period)

Public relations, word of mouth and referrals (being green comes with societal perception benefits)

New business oppportunities


Indoor health

Higher work productivity  for business occupants

Reduced Costs over the life of the building

Employee/Tenant satisfaction from doing the right thing

Improved Company-Society linkages (CSR on the cheap)


Improved resource use

Reduced carbon footprint


Streamlined approvals

Reduced liability risks

Partnership and funded research opportunities

Keeping ahead of industry regulations and market advances

Some other things not mentioned in the book that I can think of.

Reduced Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions

Improved waste management processes

Reduced load on city services

Reduced Heat Island effect

Increased air and water filtering and purification

Improved Company-Society linkages (CSR on the cheap)

Improved cash flow opportunities

Ecology savings help pay for further efficiency improvements

1. Product Differentiation.

When you have the only rooftop ecology in the area people notice. Especially in an area where people are looking down on your roof from higher buildings. However as an enterprise Rooftop Ecology is seeking ways in which to construct businss to community connections (where the most vulnerable members of the local community tend to the ecology for a share of the numerous benefits, mainly the food produced). The effect of this  means that your ecology will draw public attention (both in the media and in the local community) for essentially zero cost. A company assisting in a triple bottom line endeavor such as this i.e pursuing not merely the bottom line of profits but ecological and societal benefits sets itself apart from the herd. Just think of Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop.

2. Market Niche (Health and productivity,  green investment)

Having a company or real estate agency association with rooftop ecology is essentially generating money for nothing. Building owners lease space for free to Rooftop Ecology and benefit in a multitude of ways,  all at no cost either in terms of capital or administrative load increases. It’s not like they’re using their roof anyway.

3. Streamlined design costs (arising out of having the ecology do a lot of the work for you)

If you are required by law or by competition to perform a building upgrade, would you have the know how to do that? How much would it cost to bring in consultants who only work for a fee and walk away after handing out their words of wisdom? Rooftop Ecology takes something you’re not using and designs in features that will help your company meet the regulations that would require you to spend money on upgrading the building.

4. Reduced capital cost (If the ecology is keeping your building cool in summer and warm in winter you can cut back on equipment)

This is more of an issue in a new building, however if a rooftop ecology is included from the beginning then it changes the operating parameters of your building for the better such that you AC/heating systems can be reduced in size, cost and complexity, all of which translates into capital cost reductions. However most architects are clueless about this.

On the other hand, roof maintenance is an expensive proposition. A rooftop ecology by virtue of its intercepting UV radiation and acting as a thermal barrier on the roof has the potential to  greatly extend the lifespan of your existing roof. As a small or medium sized businessman this means you don’t have to go cap in hand to the bank asking for a loan to do it.

5. Reduced operating costs (If you don’t put the machines in you don’t pay to operate them)

Electricity and gas bills for heating and cooling are reduced.  Additionally costs because of phantom load,  all those machines on standgy are reduced.  Nothing reduces phantom load better than getting rid of equipment because it’s un-necessary.

6. Increased market value (value premium for the developer from the eco-cachet)

Eco-design features on your building differentiate your building from others. Differentiation means it’s worth more,though as can easily be appreciated there are other reasons why a building with a rooftop ecology would be worth more – it’s just a more efficient building.

7. Faster leasing (absorption/occupancy rate) with increased rents for the building manager

This is by virtue of a building’s desirability. If clients come to the building and say Wow because of what’s on the roof you can bet they’d pay extra and jump at an opportunity to become an occupant and be loathe to leave when they do.

8. Customer mortgage and rebate incentives

I take this to mean that when your green actions improve efficiency and reduce costs then you can pay back mortgages faster using the increased cashflow.

9. Public relations, word of mouth and referrals

When you’re doing something triple botttom line ie profits, environment and society all improve, then word gets around.


10. Indoor health (though admittedly this means cycling plants off the roof into the building)

11. Higher work productivity (plants in the building reduces VOC (volatile organic compounds) in the workplace)

12. Reduced Costs over the life of the building (from reduced sick leave, mortgage payments, utility bills etc)

13 Employee/Tenant satisfaction (from doing the right thing)


Improved resource use

Reduced carbon footprint

Reduced Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions

Improved waste management processes

Reduced load on city services

Reduced Heat Island effect

Increased air and water filtering and purification


Streamlined approvals

Reduced liability risks

Partnership and funded research opportunities

Keeping ahead of industry regulations and market advances

Seen in this way the question is not why should we have a rooftop ecology on our building but how crazy would we be not to have an ecology on our roof.


Connected ideas

I come up with an idea or a concept and then the people around me trash it. It’s the way of things and I take it to mean that I need to find people like me, rather than naysayers and the like.

I have written on here about growing plants up walls to reduce the need for air conditioning in summer. I tend to think of this as putting on sun screen in summer and taking it off in winter. Buildings by themselves don’t do that very well in my opinion. Indeed from living in two Tokyo apartments I’ve come to the conclusion that the architects should call themselves solar oven designers and admit they’re in bed with the air conditioning and heater salesmen.

Now people who read my blog and have listened to me talk about this subject sometimes send me links that parallel the kind of thing I am talking about.

This first one was sent to me by my designer brother.

As you can see it’s basically my idea of growing something up a wall. They have it running like a conveyer belt though and so it seems designed for industrial use.  Additionally, they focus only on growing food in vertical spaces and its aesthetic appeal.

I see a few problems with this.

First, you need two panes of glass on the outside of the building so it’s not something you can retrofit. It seems designed for office buildings rather than homes and for annual crops instead of perennials.

Offices are where you work not where you cook. You cook at home with plants which are close at hand. Besides the people who have the time and inclination to take care of these plants would be the elderly, the housebound, and home makers.

Second if you wish to clean air then the plants which do that best are not the ones you eat. There is a talk on by Kamal Meattle about this. If you want to clean air inside a building, have the plants, in this case Areca Palm, Mother in Law’s tongue and Money Plant, inside the building.  The TED talk is here:

Additionally, having floor to ceiling windows means its not thermally efficient. If you wish thermal efficiency then you should opt for straw bale construction, or rammed earth.  If you still wish to let more light in then I’d probably use Maerogel (interestingly this product is not the market yet).

So anyway that’s my take on this plant big wheel. If you want to put plants on the side of a building, use a vine, give it something to climb, like a net. Lower the whole supporting structure like a sail on a ship when you want to harvest. Make it a die back perennial such that the building absorbs as much sunshine as possible in winter (you could even have a dark colored wall) on a south facing in the sure and certain knowledge that it would be shaded when a black wall became a liability instead of an asset. I’d tend to go with Air Potato or a hardy kiwi.

Now onto the second thing I was sent recently;  this by my good friend Taylor:

Here we have an architect’s idea of connecting flat roofs, with gardens, across multiple dwellings.  It’s a good one as far as it goes.  If it were me you would have plants down the side of the building, as well as a gazebo up for socializing. Designs like this are just crying out for sun loving plants, shade tolerant plants, vines, raised beds for annuals etc. Being architects all they do is stick something vaguely green on it. They need to expand their horizons and work on things from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Rooftop Ecology- Another dimension.

Modern life in cities is  a lonely business.

I know someone has moved into the apartment next to me because I’ve thumps and scrapes and the heavily muffled sub-audio hum of conversation. Now it’s silent it could be Schrodinger’s cat next door for all I know. For the moment like the cat they are both alive and dead at the same time.

Though given the use of poison in the experiment I’d hope this was not the case.

Where do people interact in large cities? There’s certainly no place in my apartment building. Elevators going up or down segregate people according to the direction of travel and by order. That is if someone from the 4th floor is going down, then the person on the 6th floor is necessarily going to have to wait and travel alone.

And so we are alone again.

Could we use what Americans call sidewalks (in a nod to their position in the street) and what Brits call the pavement (defining the place in terms of materials). Sadly, not really. Sidewalks are very narrow spaces where I live in Tokyo and Tokyo people don’t talk to each other unless they are introduced.  Indeed, in many places there are no sidewalks, merely painted white lines on the road requesting drivers not run over pedestrians.

And of course wary pedestrians.

The parks too are either for kids or for old people, they’re not thoroughfares or places of assembly. You’ll see a mother with a baby carriage and some old men sitting in ones and twos looking into the distance. On a good day you’ll see three or four playing boules, french style in a dusty, sand floored square.

It’s all very dispiriting.  But it’s not just sad, it’s more than that. When we lose places where people come together to interact and watch as the the general hustle and bustle of people going  to and fro about their business, well when we lose that we lose something important.

Social engagment and higher levels of interaction and indeed learning are really only possible in places like piazza’s coupled with wide sidewalks where people get to interact with each other.  It’s nothing less than major blood vessels entering the aorta. A place for mixing and being and moving. The analogy is an apt one, these places are the life blood of a city, of a neighborhood, of a community.

The loss of them leaves us bereft.

What we have at present is no substitute. The difference is akin to comparing a slurpy in a paper cup to a banquet in Tuscany. There is not, and can never be any significant  interaction between a pedestrian and a car driver.

Why is this important you might ask and where am I going with this? Well, the actions and interactions of one or two people are relatively simple, but the actions and interactions of hundreds of people are much more complex, giving rise to an emergence.

From the back cover of Steven Johnson’s book Emergence.

“Emergence is a a change that occurs from the bottom up. When enough individual elements interact and organize themselves the result is collective intelligence – even though no-one is in charge. It is a phenomenon that exists at every level of experience and will revolutionize the way we see the world.”

We’ve dumbed down our cities. We’ve taken the fabric of the city as the university of life and turned it into free certificate correspondence course. When you dumb down your cities all problems seem insurmountable because you’ve turned your city from Einstein into Forrest Gump. What you’re left with is the ideas of individuals, not groups. What you’re left with is the power of individuals not communities.

The question now should be how can we start to upgrade again?

Well I propose the following.

If you want to put the neighbor back in neighborhood.

If you rail as I do against the isolation tank of the I in I-pod, where personalities are siphoned off down headphones to an I-store around the neck.

If you want to have friends around you instead of having to make trips across the city to centrally located gathering areas and finding your train stops before you reach home.

If you want any of that then I suggest that a good place to start would be on the roof.

The roof you say? But roofs are boring places, bare concrete separated from humanity. It’s hot and exposed in summer and a place in thrall in to the cold northern wind in winter.

All true, but not if you have an ecology there.

You could have a roof garden I suppose, but a roof garden is really a place to meditate, maybe read a book. There isn’t really a good reason to be there besides catch a little sun. It’s a place you go for peace and quiet, a covert cigarette.

A rooftop ecology is interesting though. There’s always something going on, something happening, something evolving. It’s a place to observe, to browse, to tend to, to talk about with the other people who have likewise invested time and effort into it. It’s a self sufficiency skills workshop. It’s a place where you show the fella from three buildings away how ‘you’ run your worm bin.

If we’re going to solve the problems that face urban man in the 21st century, then we need to reshape our cities, make them smarter, more integrated and less subdivided. A single roof is a good place to start. Multiply that by a thousand, connect the roofs into thoroughfares where possible and the interactions in the hundreds of millions will give us all the things we need most in life, and a chance to keep living.

Tokyo Nantucket Connection

What’s the connection between Tokyo and Nantucket you might ask? Well the answer is pretty simple.  Rooftop Ecology, but we’re going to put a twist on it. Let’s face it, someone has to..

Read this:

You’ll read about the way things are usually done.  Find a market niche, develop a business plan, consider your supply chain, sign the contracts, see about getting the whole listed five years down the line.  Make some money and go into pursuing X Prizes or building 100,000 dollar electric sports cars. You’ll be reading about centralized processing areas, trucking stuff all over the place, getting drivers.

I mean what the hell!

It’s bloody Wall Street all over again.

How about this instead.

Find charities helping the disadvantaged and the abused.  Teach their people some basic skills.  Find a business or complex with free roof space and a significant organic waste stream.

Overlap them and staple at the join. Watch the people at the bottom start to become the people in the middle. Isn’t that better than doing what we always do and then watching 90% of the money going to the top 2% of people?

Look at what cannot be recycled organically, that’s your structure, your building blocks. It’s useful precisely because nature can’t eat it.  But you have to use it, tack it down, account for it. Otherwise it’s going to be choking Sea Otters in the North Pacific in 5 years.

Why do you never hear about community initiatives, decentralised systems? Why does it always have to be a centralized business? Can’t anyone think out of the box anymore?

It’s a roof, surely we can’t get much from it?

Roofspace is generally limited and soils are thin, weight allowances are stringent so is there any hope of producing worthwhile amounts of produce from a rooftop? I think there is.

However you cannot think of it as being a rooftop farm because the term “farm” has been devalued by the likes of “Monsanto”, “Archers, Daniel Midland” and “Syngenta” such that many people now see a farm as being:

  • one soil (it’s really just a binder matrix for the agrochemicals)
  • one plant (genetically modified franken-seeds, a patented lifeform. They can sue you if a seed lands in your field)
  • one selection of agro-poisons (ours because we’ve twisted plants around to accept only our poisons)
  • one harvesting machine (you need the machines to work the supply chain and deliver the chemicals)
  • one supply chain (farmer gets 10c on the dollar. This chain has a collar on one end.)
  • one worker (because government subsidies go where the money is and that means no people)
  • one main beneficiary (the Agro Combine)

This type of industrial farming is designed for extensive cultivation (though soil mining might be a better description) and maximum yields (i.e. maximizing the output of only one product) in the near absence of people (labor). It’s capital intensive.  It’s purchased input intensive. It’s destructive and expensive.

Fundamentally, it’s completely the opposite of what we at Rooftop Ecology want to do with roofs. Here at Rooftop Ecology:

  • we believe in many soils, some acid, some alkali, some neutral, some wet, some dry, some with mychorrhizal fungi, some with mushroom mycelium. It’s called biodiversity, the system that allows for our survival.
  • we believe in many plants, because plant communities produce more than the some of their parts (integrated polycultures or plant guilds) and man cannot live on bread alone, and we should share with other lifeforms. They provide services half the time anyway.
  • we don’t believe in putting poisons into the soil, it disrupts the soil food web and kills the fish in your aquaponics tank, besides when I wash my lettuce under the tap to ensure it doesn’t kill me is this really a good idea.
  • we feel a harvesting machine, combine harvester, call it what you will, is a bad idea if you choose the machine you can’t choose community, or biodiversity or soil health.
  • we feel a supply chain is something that is essentially designed to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of powerful interests who act against their communities. Corporate Social Responsibility is worse than military intelligence. The military at least try to be intelligent while Corporations are formed for the sole reason of avoiding responsibility. It’s a scam and no-one should fall for it.
  • we actually like people.  We want people to be involved. We believe in community. We believe in stakeholders rather than stockholders. We want more eyes on the land, a closer connection between people and nature than the bread in a plastic bag on a convenience store shelf.

Now the important part of that rant I just did was the ‘no poisons’ part. You put poisons in an ecosystem it destroys the linkages between organisms and it’s the linkages that make it productive, resilient and just plain healthier.

So here’s some of the things that are possible..

Let’s start with the Black Soldier Fly, it’s like a garbage collector and recycler. It fills the tank that keeps the ecosystem going.

Black Soldier Fly Bin (insects – don’t take kindly to insecticides)

Ultra Fast Waste Processing

Fish Food (they crawl to the fish tank and throw themselves in)

Chitin (believe it or not there is a market)

Housefly Repellent (so they’re our soldiers not disease carriers)

Worm Bin (invertebrates (no backbone)– don’t take kindly to any soil poisons)

Worm Compost (Vermicompost- fertilizer the way the plants want it)

Worm Tea (connects to Self Irrigated Planters SIPs)

Worm Castings (new bin ingredients for ecology expansion)

Worms (Fish and Chicken Food)

Worm Enzymes (made into industrial cleaners)

Fish (chemicals get flushed into the water and your fish float on the surface showing their belly)


Fish innards (Black Soldier Fly reprocessing)

Fish bones (Korean Natural Farming Input ingredient)

Chickens (chemicals get into the eggs and bones)

Chicken Meat


Annual Vegetables

Self Irrigated Planters and Aquaponics beds (all year round in a an unheated greenhouse)



Animal Fodder

Fungi (don’t take kindly to fungicides)

Mushrooms (grown in Self Irrigated planters with the plants)

Plant Support Systems (bestows drought/disease/pest protection)


Removes contaminants from air and water.

Plant and fish food. And for humans too.

Biofuel potential

Spirulina algae


Honey (a whole range of value added products) including honey beer (yum)

Beeswax (a whole range of value added products)



See FAO document:


Waste to be recycled

Environmental stewards (increasing biodiversity by augmenting nature)

We make the linkages turn deserts into Edens and make better people of ourselves along the way.


The productivity of small polyculture farming systems is enormous, many multiples of what is achievable on a western style industrial farm. The costs are very low because you purchase next to nothing (I am slowly putting the Korean natural farming input production methods on the blog)  – all the inputs come from within the ecology, or are very cheap.

So yes, we can produce worthwhile amounts of food and other products from rooftops. But we can also get other benefits from it – community, infrastructure improvement, heat island amelioration, building environment improvement, AC use reduction, improved water management, waste reprocessing on site. The list goes on and on and on..

The Hanging Gardens of the Future

Green Futures, the sustainable solutions magazine, recently featured an article on the subject of urban farming.  They’re basically talking about what we here at Rooftop Ecology will soon be putting into practice.

“Every one of us will own a ‘farm in a box’, which will sit on our balcony, roof or next to a window. Advances in aeroponics – growing in a mist of nutrients, rather like in a rainforest – will give us emissions-neutral food at the heart of our cities.

These boxes would be supplemented by neighbourhood vertical farms housed in the redundant high-rise office blocks we no longer commute to, and the multi-storey carparks we no longer need. They will employ closed-loop systems, generating their own energy and harvesting and recycling rainwater. Front gardens, flat roofs and patches of wasteland will also become mini-market gardens, helping to green, cool and feed the city.

The full article is here:

I agree with this article for the most part. What I disagree with is the idea of having closed loop systems. Such systems tend to be envisioned rather narrowly, missing out on the possibilities that come from borders, linkage and connections.

If you accept the idea that energy and materials can neither be created not destroyed, merely turned into different forms, then closed systems would be stifling in its constraints. I tend to side with ZERI on this – ZERI methodology is more of an attempt at an infinite cycle, constantly using energy from the sun and material from the earth’s surface and oceans to power an ever more complex of beneficial linkages, such that absolutely nothing is wasted.

Nature is chock a block with systems of unbelievable complexity such that nothing is wasted. To think that a human designed closed system would be the ultimate is to lack vision.

Additionally, aquaponics (fish and plants in gravel) beats hydroponics (plants in solutions) into a cocked hat. The reason is that fish-plants-fish beats plants-plants. Add recyclers like earthworms, fungi and black soldier fly and you have recyclers-fish-plants-humans- and so on. You can’t get complexity if you restrict yourself to ‘just’ growing plants. Plants use animals, algae, fungi to complete their cycles, so we should also.

Furthermore, looking at it as being merely a food growing process is to miss out on the energy channeling potential. For the moment forget energy generation, think energy reduction because a NEGAWATT is so much cheaper to obtain than a MEGAWATT. Plants will perform this service for free, while doing everything else – it doesn’t get much cheaper than free.

So you see, these processes we’re developing also make buildings better. The benefits spread out to society and particularly to infrastructure:

Also Emission Neutral? Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, some of it can get back there but you can slow the process down a lot. Additionally some of the carbon taken in by plants can be turned into biochar and sequestered in the soil for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. That’s getting into the heavy carbon negative territory. I removing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into the soil in a form that doesn’t lead back to the atmosphere again.


Finally, “Box” is a particularly inappropriate concept in this regard, because what we’re talking about has no walls or boundaries. Use “infinite webs” instead. Some might say you can’t design the infinite. I say look at the the massive networks we have which are composed of simple units connected to each other – one example would be the internet.

Carolyn Steel talking about how food shapes cities.

Here is Carolyn Steel talking about how food shaped cities and about how food can reshape cities so that they are ready for the future.

The ultimate goal is infrastructure lite.

Something which is seldom reported or even remarked upon is the way in which the miniaturization of technology is allowing problems to be handled and services to be produced, at source, rather than produced or processed at a central location.

To my mind if you practice source separation at source, ie not dealing with wastes from residences, and industry together, then you know exactly what you’re dealing with and can deploy simple technology to deal with it.  This is  especially true if you can ensure that organics and inorganics don’t get mixed together.

As well as being simpler it would also be cheaper.

An example of this would be treating sewage. It’s a complex mix of toilet flushes, paint dumps, agrochemical leakage and everything else you can think of. This is very complex to treat and if there’s one relationship that always seems to hold it’s that the more complex a problem is the higher the required capital investment will be. This of course leads to someone developing a business for it, turning it into a monopoly, getting money from the government to pay for it, paying minimum wage or less to the workers (whose tax dollars helped pay for the research in the first place) and then going buying a yacht or two. That’s where we’re at right now. Paying people to do things we could do ourselves.

I’m serious.

So that brings me to Infrastructure Lite. What do I mean by infrastructure lite? Well, consider an apartment building that collects water on its roof, uses it and then recycles it back to the roof. Imagine a building that uses the sanitation system as a supplementary power source so that every time you really have to go, you know that your efforts will be helping to power your residence. Imagine a sanitation system that doesn’t bring in drinking water and turn it into a toxic pollutant then dump it in the ocean, but rather derives energy from it and turns it into organic liquid fertilizer and compost; the building blocks of plant life. Such a building, would be in a temperate maritime climate completely independent of the water mains and the sanitation system. Imagine also that a proportion of your food requirements were met from your roof, using the products from your sanitation system. If you were to combine the savings together how much money would you be able to gather together to pursue further improvements?

A significant amount every month I would imagine.

How quickly would you be able to improve the insulation in your building? Or, add a wind turbine on the roof? Purchase high efficiency equipment?

The biological systems are self-perpetuating so they’re the bottom of the pyramid as far as improvements go, but the savings the produce would mean that you could start working up to things that didn’t grow themselves, such as wind turbines, biodigester, LED lighting, additional insulation, natural lighting systems, the energy reduction monitoring systems etc etc.

In high population density areas this would still be a real challenge. After all a ten storey apartment building isn’t going to get enough off the roof to feed everyone in the building, but imagine you live in low density area where you not only have a flat roof, but a back yard and a front yard. Would you be able to get the majority of your food needs from it. I think so.

Band together with three to four other families, get the turbine, get the neighborhood biodigester, become your own utility. More importantly you’d be doing this in areas where the cost of infrastructure maintenance was so much higher and so much more vulnerable to failure because the people are so spread out.

Now, I’m trying to do this in Tokyo, so the challenge is greater.  However for me, the  rooftop ecology is merely the beginning, and we’ll get to the beginning soon I promise. But when this baby starts to make money through generating savings, we’ll be reinvesting the profits to generate income from further savings from within the buildings we operate on top of.

This business is the thin end of an enormous wedge and the further we push it the bigger slice we’ll get, they’ll get, you’ll get. It truly is a win-win proposition.