"We were very keen on getting gardens happening on roofs, because there’s just so much wasted space on rooftops, and it’s just such such a shame to see the disappearance of so much of our natural vegetation and wildlife."
Since its inception as a sustainable leadership course project that came out of their participation in The Centre for Sustainability Leadership Future Makers Fellowship in 2011, Melbourne-based company Do it on the Roof has worked hard to answer one question: What is a green roof? Five years ago, not very many people in Australia knew, but Shelley Meagher has made it her mission to promote this up-and-coming innovative practice.
“I and the person I started Do it on the Roof with were very keen on getting gardens happening on roofs, because there’s just so much wasted space on rooftops, and it’s just such such a shame to see the disappearance of so much of our natural vegetation and wildlife. So, we started a campaign to promote what green roofs are to the public, and we knew that some government bodies had money they were willing to allocate to creating a green roof that was in the public domain so that people could go on. We were confident that once people had been on a green roof, all the questions about what a green roof is and is it possible would disappear. But, in the course of that campaign, we got a reasonable amount of media attention, and as a result of that, people started saying to us, ‘Rather than just campaigning, can you just create a green roof for us?’
After a while, I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ We thought that would be really fun and in fact, sometimes in the private sector, you can get things done more quickly than waiting for all the political will and government process to occur that’s required to happen to get a publicly-funded public green roof happening. So, we decided to go ahead and start a business. We made that decision around the start of 2013, and spent about a year doing research and preparation for the company, then we invested in the company in March 2014 – and here we are today, very happy to have survived our first two years.”
As a progressive business, Do it on the Roof prides themselves on “the combination of professional services, culture and approach to delivering practical services.” Their practice towards “design, construction, management and maintenance services for green infrastructure” allows them to demonstrate this confidence and commitment to quality in the way of green roofs, green walls, and the occasional rain garden. Meagher says that one day the hope is to combine all three of these green projects, and the company has been experimenting with smaller hybrid projects to work up to achieving this ultimate goal. “It’s not uncommon at all for us to do design or construction or management and maintenance work in which we’re working both on a green roof or a green wall and the surrounding landscape or garden,” she says. “We think that that’s very valuable to link those two together.”
The municipal and educational sectors are also a key outlet for Do it on the Roof, as it allows for Meagher and her associates to expand the knowledge regarding green infrastructure. The Sustainability Rover is a key piece of equipment to bring to the schoolyard, as it allows science students to see the function and benefits of a green roof first-hand. The company has also been approached by local government councils who want to promote sustainability within the public sphere. Pop-up gardens have been a popular way to do this, as it allows property developers, facility managers, architects and business owners to test to invest and see if green projects are a good fit for them. “The community generally loves having the opportunity to get their hands dirty or work with plants and learn more about what they can do with plants, whether they’re living in the heart of the city or somewhere with more space.”
While trial gardens allow potential clients to see the benefits of green infrastructure, the business strives to maintain its purpose by guaranteeing projects that will last for years after they are built. “What we want to create is great, flourishing, diverse, beautiful green roofs and walls for the long-term,” says Meagher. “Of course it’s great to look fantastic on the date of installation, or two years in, but it’s only after the two-year period or even the three-year period that really you begin to see how sustainable a green roof or green wall is.
More technically speaking, the way we look to achieve that is giving priority to ecology in the way we design green infrastructure – and by that I mean ensuring that our ecologists hear directly from clients what it is that the client wants, and the ecologist can then think about an ecological design that will deliver a garden that performs the function that will make the purpose that the client wants. The importance of ecology there is, with ecological design, you’re looking to design and specify plants and subsets.”
The long-term success of a project collectively relies on a variety of team members; but, it is the relationship between the ecologist and the horticulturist that helps determine how the design translates though the coalescence of the various necessary plant subsets – each receives structural advice from the other in order to create a garden that not only meets the needs of the individual client, but will keep flourishing year after year. “Horticultural problem-solving is crucial to getting a great result,” says Meagher. “Our horticulturalists are involved in maintenance or in teaching our clients how to do maintenance better themselves, and they’re in close consultation with the ecologists about that. Of course, supporting them are landscape architects, engineers and green infrastructure system designers, because we’re talking about engineered environments. So, this is not just about horticulture and ecology; it certainly requires those highly technical areas of expertise, and the trick is to get all these people to communicate clearly to one another in language that they can all understand.”
This line of communication is crucial, as it allows the company and its associates to connect on a variety of levels, allowing them to deliver for a diverse selection of clients. Do it on the Roof has provided their services to apartments, houses, schools and – more recently – commercial office buildings; Meagher foresees a great deal of growth in the latter, which will provoke a great increase in the number of stakeholders. “We’re a small, young business,” she says. “We don’t have the assets that a large, long-established business has, but the assets we do have to offer are honesty – being straight-forward with people – our commitment to delivering quality, communicating about what we’re doing – because no matter how honest and committed to quality you are, unforeseen events arise. When you’re creating something, the unexpected very often occurs, so we know how important it is to communicate well, clearly and often about how business is progressing; both to our clients, but also within our team.”
In its two years of operation, Do it on the Roof has made a comfortable impact on the community without much government assistance; however, due to their hard work and strength in providing an innovative service, this is something that the company would like to see changed. An increase in education on the processes of green infrastructure is an action that would definitely help secure quality planning approvals, and allow companies like Do it on the Roof to produce more progressive gardening projects. “Not every green roof or wall has to go through a planning application,” says Meagher. “But, if you’re talking about a new build or development then it often will, and I’m confident it’s fair to say at the moment that most planning departments in local government haven’t seen a lot of green roof and green wall applications – probably the green roofs I’m talking about in particular here – and that has a number of consequences.
“Australia has people who think innovatively and who take action. But, the reality of innovating is that you get a lot of no’s from people; people telling you you can’t do that, and they’re telling you that just because it’s different from what they’ve seen before. You get people becoming very angry with you. The reality of innovation for me is a fairly, mundane daily struggle to just keep plodding away at what you’re doing. I think that high-quality education over time changes that environment. The more government can invest in teaching our whole society to think critically for themselves so that difference is assessed on their merits more than just on the fact that it is different, the more the government will be fostering innovation. That’s the sort of investment from government that could make a real difference to us, and that would make a real difference to other people I know who do other innovative things.”
Meagher’s love of nature began at a young age, as she and her family would spend a lot of time outdoors and taking regular camping trips; but, it was her university studies in English Literature that created the spark needed to form innovative ideas towards green infrastructure. The fascination with Romanticism and its representation of human beings within the natural world helped her realise the importance of sustainable living, along with the fleeting coexistence of man and nature. In order to help restore that relationship, she needed to take positive action and create a plan that was different from the rest. “Having focused for a long time on ideas and writing, I wanted to find out: how does practical change occur, and what happens when you work with other people to try and create change? In English Literature, you tend to work solo, which is great, but you don’t work in a team environment very much. So, I was very interested to explore what possibilities that opens up. Also, what are the challenges of doing it? That’s something I continue to find very exciting.
I had some experience in the difficulties that arise when you’re trying to talk to people who are trained in a field other than your own. What are the benefits and values you can get out of that, but also what are the pitfalls? What are the challenges? I think that’s one reason why I was attracted to the field of green roofs and green walls, because you need multiple types of expertise in green infrastructure. Getting these people to communicate clearly with one another and make their knowledge and expertise valuable to one another is the sort of take I find both challenging, but really rewarding and exciting.”
Going forward, the “big goal” for the future of Do it on the Roof is to ensure the same quality of service as business progresses past its two-year anniversary. Meagher would also like to ensure the safety and satisfaction of her team and provide secure full-time employment for her team members, with growing employment opportunities in project management, landscape architecture and horticultural services. “I want to strengthen our systems and procedures,” she says. “I guess that’s a challenge that many small businesses aged about two face is you’ve developed a bit of capability; you’ve got a little bit of a track record. But I feel very strongly that we’ve really got to work on our systems; that’s how we’ll capitalise on some of what we’ve learned so far, and it’s also how you’ll provide a structured environment for your staff to work in. So, that’s very important to me.
It breaks my heart to see the destruction to our landscape that we’ve seen, particularly in the last 15 years. I don’t think that destroying it is crucial to our flourishing as a society. So, I really just wanted to show that we don’t have to do it that way, and the actions that individuals take can make a difference.”
Original source: Australian Business News Source