Breathing New Life into Urban Rooftops

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Marni Horwitz knows her way around some of the coolest rooftops in New York City. As a green roof specialist, she spends much of her time planning and installing green roofs all over Manhattan and beyond. Her company, Alive Structures, installs both green roofs and ecological gardens and produces planters made of recycled materials like reclaimed wood and recycled paper.

Also a biology conservationist, Horwitz’s business is an excellent example of an environmentally innovative company that shows great promise with regard to both bolstering the economy and healing the environment. Earth911.com recently spoke with Horwitz to learn more about the benefits of green roofs and planters.

Green rooftops are easy on both the environment and your wallet by lowering energy costs. Photo: Projectloop.org

Green rooftops are easy on both the environment and your wallet by lowering energy costs. Photo: Projectloop.org

Harnessing and Healing the Urban Landscape

Alive Structures is a full service design-and-build company that works with homeowners, business owners and architects to design green spaces for an array of structures from homes to schools to restaurants.

“It’s exciting to turn an empty lot into a beautiful area for thousands of species,” Horwitz says.

Horwitz meets with clients and puts together an estimate, proposal and design. Once this is finished,  she and her colleagues conduct the entire installation of the roof or garden. All of the species used on rooftops are drought-tolerant and hardy, so maintenance is minimal. In gardens, the company focuses on using native species of the Northeast.

Alive Structures also partners with schools to help with the installation of green roofs. According to Horwitz, “Green roofs are excellent educational tools.” The final piece of the business is the planters, which are small replicas of what one might find in a green roof or garden. They are made from recycled materials and include saxifrage, native plants, alpine species and succulents.

Intelligent Design

Horwitz started Alive Structures two years ago, but she has been interested in green design since an early age thanks to her mother, who has owned a landscape design business for the past 20 years. After college, Horwitz worked for the Gaia Insitute, which works to recreate wetlands, remediate brownfields and install green roofs. She also apprenticed with Green Living Technologies, a green roof and green wall installation company. After becoming a certified installer, she started Alive Structures.

Reducing the Concrete Footprint

The conversion of the urban environment into natural habitat has several environmental and monetary benefits:

  • Lowers energy bills and overall temperature – Green roofs reduce annual energy bills by 15 to 30 percent by providing insulation in the summer and winter and through evapotranspiration, the plant’s natural process of breathing in toxic air, digesting it and breathing out cooler, purified air. The result is the surface of the roof is 50 or 60 degrees cooler in the summer, which affects both the temperature of the building and the overall temperature of the city.
  • Improves overall air quality – Rooftop plants filter air particulates as well as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide.
  • Reduces urban heat island effect – Cities in general are several degrees warmer than areas with vegetation. Green roofs lower the overall temperature of the air around them.
  • Creates natural habitat – Horwitz works with native plants on green roofs to  create a biodiverse habitat, which is important for migratory and overwintering species.
  • Longevity for the roof – Green roofs greatly extend the life of the waterproof membrane of a roof, which is a section that usually needs to be replaced every 10-15 years due to damage from UV rays and extreme weather.

Rooftop plants filter air particulates as well as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. Photo: Freshome.com

Rooftop plants filter air particulates as well as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide. Photo: Freshome.com

Raising the Roof on Awareness

Horwitz has seen a huge surge of interest in green roofs. Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, an organization dedicated to spreading the word about green roofs, has seen a huge increase in membership.

Municipalities are catching on as well. New York City just passed a tax incentive for homeowners that install green roofs.

Getting Back to the Roots

Above all, Horwitz enjoys planning and installing each new microcosm of urban renewal.

“I love getting my hands dirty,” she says. “I really enjoy the process of designing and choosing the plants because it requires me to be artistic and thoughtful.”

Her favorite part, though, is the actual planting. “It’s transforming and magical to go up to a peaceful rooftop in March in the middle of the city and be surrounded by purple crocuses.”

Finding Opportunity in Crisis

The current economic situation has certainly made it more difficult for business owners and homeowners to install green roofs, but Horwitz sees investment in the green economy as one of the most viable solutions.

“From improved air quality, to water quality, to increased natural habitat, there are so many public benefits to green roofs,” she says.

Horwitz is hoping to install larger green roofs on industrial buildings such as locations in Long Island City and Queens, where their office is located. She will continue to sell planters and work with schools to install green spaces.

Favorite of the Three R’s

An innovator, Horwitz embraces her own set of “R’s” – renew, remediate and rejuvenate. Of those three, her favorite is rejuvenate.

“The economy, education, energy and the environment are all interconnected,” she says. “If we can create new industries around rejuvenating polluted areas and finding new sources of energy, the quality of life for everyone will be vastly improved.”

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