green roof or living roof is a roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, planted over a waterproof membrane. It may also include additional layers such as a root barrier and drainage and irrigation systems. Container gardens on roofs, where plants are maintained in pots, are not generally considered to be true green roofs, although this is debated. Rooftop ponds are another form of green roofs which are used to treat greywater.

Green roofs serve several purposes for a building, such as absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, creating a habitat for wildlife, and helping to lower urban air temperatures and mitigate the heat island effect. There are two types of green roofs: intensive roofs, which are thicker and can support a wider variety of plants but are heavier and require more maintenance, and extensive roofs, which are covered in a light layer of vegetation and are lighter than an intensive green roof.

The term green roof may also be used to indicate roofs that use some form of green technology, such as a cool roof, a roof with solar thermal collectors or photovoltaic panels.

Environmental benefits

Species, with only the hardiest surviving varieties selected for installation on the roof

Green roofs are used to:

  • Reduce heating (by adding mass and thermal resistance value) A 2005 study by Brad Bass of the University of Toronto showed that green roofs can also reduce heat loss and energy consumption in winter conditions.
  • Reduce cooling (by evaporative cooling) loads on a building by fifty to ninety percent, especially if it is glassed in so as to act as a terrarium and passive solar heat reservoir – a concentration of green roofs in an urban area can even reduce the city’s average temperatures during the summer
  • Reduce stormwater run off — see water-wise gardening
  • Natural Habitat Creation — see urban wilderness
  • Filter pollutants and carbon dioxide out of the air which helps lower disease rates such as asthma — see living wall
  • Filter pollutants and heavy metals out of rainwater
  • Help to insulate a building for sound; the soil helps to block lower frequencies and the plants block higher frequencies
  • If installed correctly many living roofs can contribute to LEED points
  • Increase agricultural space
  • With green roofs, water is stored by the substrate and then taken up by the plants from where it is returned to the atmosphere through transpiration and evaporation.
  • Green roofs not only retain rainwater, but also moderate the temperature of the water and act as natural filters for any of the water that happens to run off.

Many green roofs are installed to comply with local regulations and government fees, often regarding stormwater runoff management. In areas with combined sewer-stormwater systems, heavy storms can overload the wastewater system and cause it to flood, dumping raw sewage into the local waterways. Green roofs decrease the total amount of runoff and slow the rate of runoff from the roof. It has been found that they can retain up to 75% of rainwater, gradually releasing it back into the atmosphere via condensation and transpiration, while retaining pollutants in their soil. Elevation 314, a new development in Washington, D.C. uses green roofs to filter and store some of its storm water on site, avoiding the need for expensive underground sand filters to meet D.C. Department of Health storm-water regulations.

Combating the urban heat island effect is another reason for creating a green roof. Traditional building materials soak up the sun’s radiation and re-emit it as heat, making cities at least 4 degrees Celsius (7 °F) hotter than surrounding areas. On Chicago’s City Hall, by contrast, which features a green roof, roof temperatures on a hot day are typically 1.4–4.4 degrees Celsius (2.5–8.0 °F) cooler than they are on traditionally roofed buildings nearby. Green roofs are becoming common in Chicago, as well as in Atlanta, Portland, and other United States cities, where their use is encouraged by regulations to combat the urban heat-island effect. Green roofs are a type of low impact development. In the case of Chicago, the city has passed codes offering incentives to builders who put green roofs on their buildings. The Chicago City Hall green roof is one of the earliest and most well-known examples of green roofs in the United States; it was planted as an experiment to determine the effects a green roof would have on the microclimate of the roof. Following this and other studies, it has now been estimated that if all the roofs in a major city were greened, urban temperatures could be reduced by as much as 7 degrees Celsius.

Green roofs also provide habitats for plants, insects, and animals that otherwise have limited natural space in cities. Even in high-rise urban settings as tall as 19 stories, it has been found that green roofs can attract beneficial insects, birds, bees and butterflies. Rooftop greenery complements wild areas by providing stepping stones for songbirds, migratory birds and other wildlife facing shortages of natural habitat.


The main disadvantage of green roofs is the higher initial cost of the building structure, waterproofing systems and root barriers. The additional mass of the soil substrate and retained water can require additional structural support. Some types of green roofs do have more demanding structural standards especially in seismic regions of the world. Some existing buildings cannot be retrofitted with certain kinds of green roof because of the weight load of the substrate and vegetation exceeds permitted static loading. Depending on what kind of green roof it is, the maintenance costs could be higher, but some types of green roof have little or no ongoing cost. Some kinds of green roofs also place higher demands on the waterproofing system of the structure, both because water is retained on the roof and due to the possibility of roots penetrating the waterproof membrane. Another detractor is that the wildlife they attract may include pest insects which could easily infiltrate a residential building through open windows.