A Quest for Improved Green Roof Details

by Brad Garner on Monday, September 23, 2019

Green roof details frustration
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Purple-Roof DETAILS

Green Roof details for Purple-Roof, a non-proprietary specification

Green roof details matter! These documents need to be crisp, clear, and easy to follow as they lay the base of the early communication around the roof project. This is why I have been on a quest to improve green roof detailing for at least eight years, and I’m happy to announce that I just launched a detail-generator that is the result of this effort.

This article, by Brad Garner, is a summary of the journey that led up to the publication of the Purple-Roof living roof details.

Green roof detailing and specifications - a frustrating journey

When I practiced landscape architecture, I became the green-roof-go-to in the office. I had done a lot of research and attended several workshops, and ultimately prepared a spec and a set of details for green roofs.

However, within a few weeks of starting full-time green roof work, I realized that I knew nothing about green roof detailing or specifications! All my studying produced clueless results. How could this be?!

Finding the issue and fixing it

I had researched more than the average architect or landscape architect. I had my Green Roof Professional (GRP) accreditation as awarded by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities for crying out loud! During that moment in 2011, my quest to master green roof detailing (and specifications, but that is a different story) grew into a mission.

I set out to fix whatever was broken in the system, and that had led to so much frustration.

While working in green roof estimation and sales, I had no choice but to learn about the range of products available: brand name, generic name, and properties. I had to learn “the rules” of designing green roof profiles, including what was essential, what could be eliminated, and which combinations worked or didn’t.

These skills are essential for anyone who needs to interpret and comply with a living roof specification, much less to design and propose an alternative. These skills are abundant within the green roof industry, but we have generally done a horrible job at educating designers and specifiers. Why?

Green roof details - finding the solution

I dug into my own learning curve to examine the hurdles. First, I discovered a lack of agreement on uniform terminology. For example, “filter fabric,” “separation fabric,” and “filter cloth” are all the same thing. Many other products, such as drainage layers, are almost exclusively referred to by brand names.

I think the lack of a common generic language has hindered education and communication efforts. Nearly all green roof details available are produced by manufacturers, and manufacturers do not often agree on best-detailing practices. I think this also leads to confusion.

My first attempt at improving detailing involved picking up the old trustworthy tool I had used for almost 20 years: AutoCAD. I drew about 30 details to be used in shop drawings and to provide architects. These were used extensively, but they didn’t cover nearly enough conditions. As the library grew to about 200 details, it became far too difficult to edit or navigate.

Around that time, I realized that I was probably thinking too conventionally by sticking with AutoCAD. Sure, it is what nearly all designers use for bid documents, but I frequently saw completely unedited versions of my details used, often with PDFs imported to cad.

Further, AutoCAD details are usually fairly uninspiring line drawings that are hard for many people to read. If the industry needs to do a better job of communicating detailing, then maybe we should do it in ways that are easier on the eye, and clearer to a broader audience.

That’s when I started working on hybrid technical/illustrative drawings.

What makes great construction drawings?

Construction drawings should be crisp with clear delineation of edges, layers, and other items that need to be dimensioned or installed with specific relationships. I started working in Adobe Illustrator, which allows this precision, but which is a much better tool for adding color and texture that makes drawings easier to read for non-technical audiences.

My first attempt at construction details in Adobe Illustrator still suffered from thinking too conventionally: I drew each individual detail and exported it as a PNG, which also became unmanageable after around 200 details.
That was one of my last projects before going back to school for web development. I started to get into animated and activated SVGs (scalable vector graphics) and decided to try a third time.

I re-entered the green roof industry in 2018, and detailing had not improved. I was back pursuing my mission! The result is what you see at Purple-Roof Green Roof Details.
Our detail generator has about 30,000 combinations, and yet it is manageable to debug and edit. A lot of work went into quality control of actual details, to ensure the correct use of layers, correct relationships of materials, etc.

We aren’t exercising “detail censorship,” as an inappropriate detail for one project might be ideal for another project. But we do try to provide guidance to help designers.
I hope people find these details useful. I hope they are able to illustrate optimal green roof detailing in a way that explains the differences between similar profiles and edge conditions.

If I’m really successful, the architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers will understand green roof detailing just a little bit better than before.


Brad Garner for Purple-Roof

P.S. For my programming friends, I'll add another blog post about the way I created the details by using Illustrator to create SVGs and React.js to manage application state.

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