Sustainable Roofing Materials: The Building Owner’s Guide

As the global climate crisis continues to be a point of major concern, the call for more sustainable building practices has never been more poignant. And with good reason: the buildings we build – and in which we live and work – have a tremendous impact on the environment.

Construction tends to consume huge amounts of fuel and natural resources, both in the manufacturing of materials and in the construction process itself. Once the buildings are in use, they consume ongoing amounts of energy to heat and cool, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the process.

In fact, building construction and usage account for as much as half of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK alone.

To address these concerns, there is both a global and industry-wide push for more sustainability in the building process, including the use of sustainable roofing materials. In the following Building Owner’s Guide, we discuss building sustainability in more detail, address some of the challenges involved in “green” building, talk about the various benefits of using eco-friendly roofing materials, and give some examples of reliable “green” roofing materials.

What is Building Sustainability?

We hear terms like “building sustainability,” “green building practices” often. But what do they actually mean?

Building sustainability refers to the idea of minimizing a building’s impact on the environment as much as possible throughout its life cycle (both in its construction and its energy efficiency). When we implement sustainable building practices, it means we construct buildings so that we don’t deplete our natural resources in the process.

We accomplish this goal in two key ways:

  1. We use sustainable “green” building materials. We manufacture or use natural materials that do not harm the environment to produce and/or are recyclable.
  2. We maximize energy efficiency. We build our buildings to require as little energy to heat, cool, and operate as possible.

In theory, true sustainability can be accomplished when a.) we don’t consume resources faster than they can be replenished; b) or we replenish the resources ourselves at the same rate that we consume them. We refer to this goal as achieving a “net zero” impact – one in which the amount of energy consumed is equal to the amount of energy produced. Although we continue to work toward that goal, net zero is not always achievable at present, but the closer we can get to that benchmark, the better. LEED certification standards have been established to help incentivize builders to implement more sustainable building practices.

Benefits of Using Sustainable Roofing Materials & Products

One key factor in improving building sustainability is the roof – namely, how it is designed and what roofing materials are used. Studies indicate that buildings lose approximately 25 percent of their heat through their roof on average. When we use green roofing materials and install “cool roofs” that reflect the sun’s rays, it can greatly improve our buildings’ energy efficiency overall.

Let’s look at some specific advantages building owners can enjoy by using sustainable roofing materials and products.

Tax Advantages

The federal government currently offers generous tax credits for energy-efficient residences and commercial buildings, along with additional tax credits for installing renewable energy products (e.g., solar panels, geothermal heat pumps). Many states and some local governments also offer various tax incentives of their own for the use of sustainable and energy-efficient materials. Check this database for information regarding tax advantages in your location.

Reduced Lifecycle Costs

The lifecycle cost of your roofing system refers to the cost per year of your roof over its entire life expectancy. It considers the cost of the roof itself spread over its life span, the amount of money you’ll spend on repair and maintenance, and even the cost of your building’s operating expenses (e.g., heating, cooling).

Green roofing materials require a bit more investment on the front end, but studies indicate that they tend to have a longer life expectancy. With the added value of reduced operating expenses, overall lifecycle costs may be lower by choosing sustainable roofing materials.

Higher Rental Income for Commercial Properties

Deloitte recently released an eye-opening report about the increased demand for “green buildings” and how demand plays out financially for investors. Sustainable buildings are increasingly attractive to tenants, resulting in slower property value depreciation and the ability to charge higher rents. Forward-thinking investors and building owners can easily see the long-term value in utilizing sustainable materials.

The Challenges of “Going Green”

For all intents and purposes, the sustainable building movement is still in its infancy. As with any emerging technology, moving toward “going green” still presents some challenges for architects, investors, and building owners. Let’s explore some of these issues.

Initial High Construction Costs

At present, the cost of manufacturing sustainable roofing materials is notably higher than their more conventional counterparts. In certain cases, the installation process may also require more skilled labor and/or person-hours, resulting in higher installation costs. While many would argue the long-term benefits to the environment (and life cycle cost benefits) outweigh these higher costs, owners must still be prepared for a larger up-front investment.

Limited Knowledge for Selecting the Right Materials and Technology

Because sustainable materials and technologies are still so new, many architects and contractors are sometimes simply unaware of how to find the right materials for green roofs, let alone how to install them. Further complicating this process is the fact that every roof has its own challenges and specifications, and not every sustainable roofing product will be the right option for every roof.

Examples of Sustainable Roofing Materials

What makes a certain roofing material “sustainable?” Several factors come into play when answering this question, including where the material comes from, how it is made, and even what happens to it at the end of its useful life (i.e., is it biodegradable or recyclable?).

Some of the more common sustainable roofing materials in use today include:

  • Clay. A natural resource of the earth, clay is an abundant material with a long life expectancy, can be repurposed and eventually decompose.
  • Concrete. Concrete is sustainable for several reasons. It requires minimal fuel to produce, has a long life expectancy, reflects sunlight to improve energy efficiency, and is recyclable.
  • Slate. Slate is a form of stone, a raw material that is abundant and highly durable as a roofing material. As it is already a natural part of the environment, it does not harm the environment.
  • Metals. Metal roofing is highly sustainable because it’s a natural resource, it’s long-lasting, and it’s completely recyclable. (Many “green” metal roofs are already produced from recycled metal.)
  • Polyurethane Foam. While polyurethane is a manufactured plastic product derived from non-renewable oil, it is still considered sustainable because it is long-lasting, reusable, and doesn’t release harmful chemicals into the environment. It is also a highly effective insulator that helps us consume less fuel for heating and cooling.

Sustainable Roofing Types

Just as certain roofing materials are more sustainable than others, certain roof structures lend themselves well to sustainability. These include:

  • Single-Ply Roofing. Certain single-ply membrane roofing systems are considered sustainable when they have a long life expectancy and help reduce energy costs. UV-resistant or “cool roof” membranes are particularly effective in this way.
  • Low-Slope Roofs. Low-slope roofing is not automatically sustainable by design, but low-slope roofs are more capable of supporting sustainable materials like concrete, metal, and reflective membranes, and elastomeric coatings.
  • Vegetative Roofs. The ultimate “green roof,” vegetative roofs consist of live plants in a growing medium over a waterproof substrate. They are entirely sustainable and renewable, not to mention they can greatly reduce a building’s energy consumption for heating/cooling.
  • TPO Membrane Roofs. The term “thermoplastic polyolefin” (TPO, for short) doesn’t sound like a sustainable material, but it is. While it’s a synthetic material, TPO is highly reflective (i.e., energy-efficient), long-lasting, and completely recyclable.

A Real-Life Example of Sustainability in Action

The Henry Ford Rouge Complex is perhaps one of the best examples of how re-thinking sustainability can turn a bad situation into a good one. The Rouge Complex was originally forged out of swampland into a massive industrial complex, but it created a huge pollution problem in the process.

By implementing more eco-friendly processes at every level – from stormwater management and landscaping decisions to waste reduction and installing the world’s largest vegetative roof – the Rouge Complex is now a living example of how a major production facility can be both environmentally friendly and profitable.

Why RoofSource?

As a trusted manufacturer representative company, RoofSource partners with many roof product manufacturers committed to producing sustainable, energy-efficient products and systems.

A few examples include:

Finding the best green roofing solutions for your commercial or residential property can be challenging. RoofSource can provide expert assistance to help you find the best green roofing solutions for your project. Contact us today to learn more.