Fishing for a better way to fix a roof

Local aquatics store fulfills a green dream with help from sewerage district

Jan. 18, 2011

Greenfield — It won't bloom until spring, but the first green roof in the city has been installed at Aquatics Unlimited.

It's an idea owners Janice and Roger Koehn considered for years for their tropical fish store at 3550 S. 108th St., but dismissed largely because of the cost - around $220,000.

"It was so expensive that we couldn't even think about it, so we put it on the back burner," Janice Koehn said.

Granting a wish

Then Pioneer Roofing in Johnson Creek, which had worked with the Koehns to weigh the best option to replace their 20-year-old roof, learned about a grant opportunity through the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Under the program, business and other organizations could get up to $200,000 for a green roof project.

It was a game-changer for the Koehns.

"This was pretty much a guaranteed thing. It was going to look nice and there's nothing to see unless you climb up there to see it," Koehn said. "It just seemed a shame to pay $60,000 to get the same old rubber roof that we've always had, so we just went for this green roof."

The opportunity fulfilled a dream of environmental innovation first kindled for the Koehns when they built their home in 1980.

A good investment

But the decision meant kicking in another $50,000, since the grant only covered half the cost of the project.

It was a gamble for the family-owned specialty store for tropical fish and other things aquatic, which the Koehns have owned for 41 years.

Beyond the environmental advantage of managing rain water runoff from the roof, Koehn and her husband also felt it was a good investment, since the carefully crafted garden on the top of their store should reduce their future utility costs.

"It should make our air conditioning work more efficiently," Koehn said. "The roof also should last longer and insulate better, so we don't lose heat."

Koehn said she was grateful to get in on the grant program while it lasted and looked forward to offering public tours of her rooftop and rain gardens, which they will do as part of the grant agreement.

"We've always done school tours, so this seemed liked a good fit doing tours to promote energy conservation," Koehn said.

She also hoped the extra foot traffic might drum up new business to help repay the cost of the green roof.

Installing a new idea

It took only a few weeks to seal the roof and install the drainage system, a process that fascinated Koehn, particularly when it came time to lay the sedum, a specialized, pre-seeded sod laid in sections to make up the roof's top layer.

"They put them together like you would put together Legos," Koehn said with a laugh.

Before construction began last fall, the Koehns were surprised to find city officials so willing to embrace their alternative plan.

The city supported the idea because it worked, said Charles Erickson, community development manager, who confirmed that the project was the first of its kind in Greenfield.

As long as a roof can handle the added weight of the drainage system, Erickson said the green concept "has great potential."

Unfortunately, that potential won't be fully realized until spring, when the red-brown sedum starts turning green, said Anthony Mayer, who oversaw construction for the Aquatics Unlimited project.

When it blooms, the roof will resemble a garden filled with purple cone flowers and native prairie grasses.

In addition to the roof, the project also included two gravel riverbeds around the property to filter rainwater from the roof, which can then be used to water the plants on the roof. Overflow will be caught in a fish garden, Mayer said.

MMSD's green initiative

The project evokes the innovation MMSD hoped to see when it launched the Regional Green Roof Initiative in 2009.

Under the program, the sewerage district offered $5 million in grants for proposals that would capture rainwater on roofs and keep it out of sewers.

The benefit is a roof that lasts two to three times longer than the average roof, said Christopher J. Schultz, water quality senior project manager for MMSD.

"They also help reduce the risk of overflows and basement backups," Schultz said.

About $3.75 million of the original grant money was awarded for 15 projects, including Aquatics Unlimited, which was the only project funded in Greenfield.

About $1 million is still available. Applications are due Jan. 31. It was unclear whether any more funding would be available this year.

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