Rumble Pie | Deep Ecology Blog

Rumble Pie #6
The Glass Ceiling on Green Roofs

EVERYONE ECO is excited about the recent May 26 Toronto City Council 36-2 decision to mandate the allocation of at least some percentage of the roof space of all newly constructed buildings to topsoil and plant life, and the inclusion of a clause that financially penalizes developers that don't comply with the code. There's no need to let the fact that this law is the first of its kind in North America go to our heads -- Chicago has over 600 green rooftops, and in Germany, they've been building green roofs for nearly 40 years now! Plus, people that profit from real estate development have harshly opposed the bylaw since it means diminished short-term profits for themselves, and have succeeded in watering down the law significantly. But hey, some green roofs are better than no green roofs, right?

ONCE THE LAW goes into effect on January 31, all new buildings -- residential, educational, institutional, and commercial -- with over 2000 square metres in gross floor area (which is equivalent to approximately six storeys or more) fall under the jurisdiction of the law. At 2000 square metres, 20% of the roof must be green; at 5000 square metres, 30% must be green, and for every additional 5000 square metres, another 10% of the roof must be green, up to a maximum mandatory minimum of 60%. Green roofs mean much more insulation, will translates into lower heating bills in the winter, and lower cooling bills in the summer. And of course, green roofs humanize the atmosphere by removing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and replacing them with oxygen-rich habitats for living beings.

IN 2005, CITY COUNCIL authorized an analytical study of green roofs. Conducted at Ryerson University, it came to the conclusion that 21% of Toronto is roofed, and that it could capably support 50 million square metres of greenery! They deduced that with this kind of investment in ecological infrastructure, the city would save over $300 million to start with, and an additional $37 million annually. The municipal government funds key commonwealth capital like roads and bridges -- why not roofs, too? According to the NGO EcoJustice, between 2006 and 2007 over 2.7 billion litres of what Toronto flushes down its toilets was dumped into Lake Ontario; green roofs would have prevented this from occurring by retaining rainwater that overloads the sewage system.

THE RYERSON STUDY recommended mandating green roofs on all buildings with a multi-floor footprint of 350 square metres or more, but by the time the legislation came to council, building industry interest groups had rewritten the requirements, making 2000 square metres the cut-off point. Another loophole lets industrial buildings off the hook if only 10% of their roof area has been greened. And developers can outsource their ecological commitments by forking over funds for the retrofitting of older buildings. Ecological lobbyists Green Roofs for Healthy Cities are "very concerned that there's been a watering down of the requirements, and we're concerned it will set a negative precedent for cities elsewhere in North America."

AND LIKE SO MUCH environmental protection legislation, the green roof bylaw isn't backed up with nearly enough bite. If developers fail to meet these percentage requirements, they can be fined up to $100,000. But if 'going green' on a large project can mean increasing the cost of the roof by "hundreds of thousands of dollars... if not more", as industry lobbyists BILD (Building Industry and Land Development Association) claim, then levying a mere $100,000 fee against the offenders would mean that they would have a greater incentive to break the law than to abide by it. In his June 27th article "Is green roof bylaw valid or a cash grab?", New In Homes title page columnist Bob Aaron even suggests that the green roof bylaw is nothing more than a ploy by City Hall to squeeze more money out of virtuous developers.

ON THE PHONE, Aaron told me, "Green roofs are idiotic... they're not cost-effective... and they're ecologically insignificant." When I asked him to substantiate his claim that green roofs are ecologically insignificant -- would he also claim that green lawns are ecologically insignificant? Would he recommend that the bylaws requiring residences to include a certain percentage of green ground cover surrounding the house be repealed? -- he admitted that he did not have any factual information to justify this assertion. I just didn't understand why a reporter who has written a weekly Saturday column for the Toronto Star for the last decade would be so resistant to green roofs. That is, until is learned that in addition to his job as a journalist, he is also on the board of directors of the Tarion Warranty Corporation.

THE TARION WARRANTY CORPORATION is a privately-owned company that has been chartered since 2004 to mediate the legal relationship between disgruntled homeowners and derelict developers. A year ago, Andre Marin, the Ombudsman of Ontario, chastised the provincial government for misleading the voting public into assuming that it would protect their interests by overseeing the activities that they delegate to the Tarion corporation. Tarion's own internal literature states: "Tarion's mandate is unique in Canada. No other province or territory so completely transfers responsibility and liability for management of the home building industry to an independent organization."

ALL NEW HOME BUYERS are required by law to pay Tarion between $700-800 to 'protect their purchase'. Tarion has a state-protected monopoly on guaranteeing warranty coverage, and yet it is a private corporation, not a government agency, and therefore it is not accountable to anyone but its own board of directors. This year, Tarion held one public meeting that lasted less than an hour in the middle of the morning, when nearly no hard-working homeowners could have had their voices heard. It holds $100 million in equity, but consumer advocacy groups like Canadians for Properly Built Homes complain that it is a far cry from "the consumer protection organization it is intended to be".

SIX MONTHS AGO, the CBC's investigative report program Marketplace exposed Tarion's practice of hampering home-owners's efforts to receive fair restitution, even when they had obviously been defrauded by dishonest developers. Time after time, naive home-buyers are being ripped off by unscrupulous home-builders, and then left with no choice but to seek legal representation, a course of action which is financially prohibitive for most. In the CBC piece, even Bob Aaron admitted: "The assumption is that [Tarion was] there to protect builders, who actually controlled the [warranty] program... the board is stacked with builders." A few weeks after he made this statement, he was appointed to the Tarion board of directors himself.

IF A BUILDING DEVELOPER cuts corners and installs a sub-par green roof, there is a chance that it will leak. If that happens, home-owners have a right to demand that the developer return to repair the damage. But builders don't want to do more work than they absolutely have to, because it cuts into their profit margin. So the government has entrusted Tarion with the task of protecting consumers' interests. But Tarion corporate offices are stacked with building industry officials. And so one of these elite industry insiders, who just happens to have a public platform for promulgating his views, uses his position to contribute to a campaign of disinformation about this new and exciting aspect of ecological architecture, green roofs.

SO THE INK IS not even dry on this new piece of ecological legislation, and already the forces of big business are making moves to crush it before it can be put into effect. And the Toronto Star probably owes its readership a higher standard of journalism. But we would be remiss if we did not come clean about our own biases, as well. Here at Green Apple, we have our own vested interests in the implementation of this new bylaw: we are seriously considering entering the Toronto market to build green roofs on the tops of houses, in addition to the landscaping work we do around them. So we'll try to use this blogging platform as a way to tell our side of the story: why we still think going green is the healthiest and happiest way to go, roofs included.

Thanks to Roger Frost for research.