A Good Roof Is A Terrible Thing to Waste

By: Jessica Bates

Property managers and building owners who are looking to add value to their asset—and increase its sustainability—may simply need to look up. A commercial roof may be hiding opportunities to improve tenant experience, reduce maintenance and operational costs or even generate revenue. In fact, between gardens, terraces, solar panels and green landscapes, rooftops are much more interesting than they were even just ten years ago.

“Rooftop amenities spaces, such as a garden or a meeting space, are incredibly popular right now, especially in downtown office spaces,” says Brenna Walraven, BOMA Fellow, CPM, RPA, president of Corporate Sustainability Strategies, Inc. “I’m also seeing more solar and green roofs; it really depends on the property type and location.” Although the payoff rarely justifies prematurely replacing a roof, when it comes time for a rooftop replacement, building owners should consider an upgrade. Not every option is going to work well for every property, but a good look at available options has the potential for a tremendous return on investment.

Seeing the Light

Before any roof upgrade, property professionals should have their building evaluated for solar. “You can’t ignore solar at this point,” says Walraven. “There are so many financing options available that there needs to be at least a conversation, particularly if you own or manage an industrial property.” Solar technology has come a long way in recent years, but property professionals shouldn’t delay in anticipation of future development.

Drew Torbin, founder of Black Bear Energy, which helps property owners and managers deploy solar projects, says that most of the buildings he looks at these days can benefit from solar. Though it may be tempting to put off installation until solar technology becomes cheaper, this ignores the number of incentives currently available for solar installation. “As the price comes down, so do the incentives being offered,” Torbin explains. “I know of projects that are five or ten years old and the economics still make sense; there’s really no reason to wait at this point.” Whether or not solar is a good fit for a property depends on a number of variables, including the location of the building, which determines how much sunlight it gets, local utility costs and local incentives available. The age of the roof is also a factor, as it doesn’t make sense to install solar on a roof that will need to be replaced soon.

Property professionals who want to consider this clean energy option might benefit from hiring a consultant to give them a comprehensive analysis of their best options. Even if a building owner chooses not to pursue solar in the near term, any upgrades to the roof should take into account possible later installation. “Usually, there isn’t any additional cost to planning a roof upgrade that could accommodate solar panels at a later date, but it makes a huge difference down the road if you don’t have to work around equipment that could have been installed elsewhere,” Torbin adds. “It can be hard to predict how factors might change to make a solar array a more attractive option.”

A Powerful Partnership

One example of how a single factor can change the math on rooftop solar is 799 9th Street NW in downtown Washington, D.C., a BOMA 360-designated building owned and managed by Brookfield Office Properties. Although Brookfield had evaluated the property for solar a few years ago and determined that the payback period was not a good fit, a single tenant changed that. Law firm Nixon Peabody was looking for new office space that also would allow them to deploy a solar array as part of their sustainability and community outreach efforts. Working with Brookfield, Nixon Peabody was able to lease not only their own building’s rooftop to install solar panels, but also two additional nearby rooftops from Brookfield to complete the project last month. The law firm will donate the resulting clean energy credits to a local housing projects. “We wanted to be an early adopter for solar in this area, and demonstrate how powerful it can be as a force for good in the community,” says Jeffrey Lesk, managing partner for Nixon Peabody’s D.C. office. “We were very fortunate to partner with Brookfield to make this a reality.”

Brookfield’s senior vice president of Operations Jackie Duke adds that the project was a welcome challenge for Brookfield as well. “We were thrilled to be a part of this project,” she says. “It’s been a rewarding and educational experience for us, and I hope it inspires other properties to consider similar projects.” Both Brookfield and Nixon Peabody plan to use the array as an educational tool, offering tours and information to local school groups, business owners and local property professionals. In fact, the undertaking has the potential to become a powerful marketing and tenant recruitment tool for Brookfield. Partnering with tenants such a Nixon Peabody on long-term projects also can incentivize longer leases and improve retention.

Even without an incentive from a tenant, solar can offer lucrative economic incentives, particularly in industrial buildings with sometimes acres of unused roof space. Some industrial tenants may not be comfortable with the roof perforations that some solar projects can cause, or they simply may not want people on their property to install or maintain the technology. However, many will welcome the costs savings that can come from selling solar energy back to utilities or using it to power the building directly. Suburban office parks are another good fit for solar, as they typically are less space constrained and have little need to convert that area into additional green space.

The Grass Is Always Greener

In most metropolitan office buildings, however, green roofs and rooftop gardens often outweigh the demand for solar. “Rooftop terraces are almost a required amenity for buildings in D.C., and they are becoming more and more elaborate as time goes on,” says Brookfield’s Duke. “As a landlord, we have to balance this demand against another project, such as a green roof.” Urban tenants want increased access to the outdoors, natural sunlight and convenient meeting areas, and these spaces fit the bill well.

It’s not unusual to find outdoor seating, walkways or even a full vegetable garden on an office roof these days. These amenities can be a strong differentiator for a building or, as Duke pointed out, simply expected in some urban settings. However, these extra offerings require additional construction and maintenance, and they may not be a good fit for every building.

For buildings that cannot or don’t need to accommodate a large volume of rooftop visitors, a green roof may be a good—and cost-effective—option. Music City Center, a convention space in downtown Nashville, Tennessee (and the site of the 2017 BOMA International Conference & Expo in June), boasts a four-acre green roof that provides innumerable benefits to the property. Comprised of 14 different types of a hard perennial crops called sedum, the roof provides enough insulation to the building to reduce their heating and cooling costs by an average of 20 percent, which adds up quickly in such a large property. The roof also has reduced the building’s water use by 40 percent. The plants are highly efficient at catching stormwater runoff, which is then filtered into a 360,000 gallon tank. The resulting greywater is used to flush the building’s toilets and to irrigate the outdoor landscaping.

Designed to mimic the rolling hills of Tennessee, the roof is also visually appealing. Visitors are not allowed to walk on it, but it can be viewed from an elevated portion of the interior of the building. “We’re excited to show off the features of the property to attendees of the BOMA International annual conference this summer,” says Mary Clippard, marketing and public relations manager for Music City Center. “Music City Center, we’re proud to say, is a great case study in how major sustainability initiatives can be both beautiful and cost-effective.”

The convention center also is a testament to the ways in which green roofs and solar panels can work in tandem—the building hosts 845 solar panels, which save tens of thousands of dollars in energy costs each year. Additionally, the green roof provides a welcome habitat to three thriving beehives, and Music City Center uses the resulting honey in its kitchens and as giveaways for visitors. Bees have become a popular addition to green roofs; cities can be an important habitat for bees, as there is typically less exposure to the harmful pesticides that contribute to honeybee colony collapse (and, of course, they provide honey!).

A building doesn’t need four acres to work with to add a vegetable or herb garden—another popular choice. Some offices are offering the resulting produce or herbs to building tenants at market price, allowing the building to recoup costs while also helping tenants feel more connected to their buildings.

One Roof Does Not Fit All

It goes without saying that the perfect rooftop solution for one building isn’t going to work in most others. Building teams looking to upgrade the roof should take time to consider their options and what works best for the building and its tenants. For example, a modern “cool” roof that reduces cooling needs for a building may not be good choice for an area that spends more energy on heating costs.

Whatever the solution, a well-planned rooftop upgrade can position a property far above the competition.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of BOMA Magazine.