Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Amber Ponce: Raising the Roof for Water and People at LiveRoof

LiveRoof ’s products allow companies and cities to make better use of rooftops in ways that reduce storm water runoff, improve environmental conservation, and enhance quality of life. The company is also managed in a way that encourages, and in fact requires, innovation among its employees, partners, and customers. In this interview, Amber Ponce, LiveRoof ’s business development manager, tells Municipal Water Leader about how the company’s green rooftop projects are revolutionizing the management of infrastructure and storm water runoff. 

 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about LiveRoof. 

Amber Ponce: Hortech, Inc., was started by David MacKenzie and his business partner in 1983 as a small wholesale perennial and shrub plants supplier. David bought out his partner, became the sole owner, and expanded to approximately five states with a specialty in perennial ground covers. The customer base was mostly independent garden centers and landscape contractors. In 2003–2004, he was involved with the development of the green roof system at the River Rouge facility of Ford Motor Company. That was one of the earliest large-scale green roofs implemented in North America. The board hired consultants from Germany, where green roofs have been commonplace for a much longer period of time. Those consultants worked with David to address Michigan’s local climatic differences, plants supply, and the suitability of certain plants for the rigors of a rooftop environment. We actually ended up growing and supplying many if not all the plants that were used in that particular installation. Following this experience, we started the brand LiveRoof to market green roof plants to landscapers working on green roof installations. 

Eventually, we were approached by a customer of ours in the landscape industry, who asked us if we could also supply a modular green roof system. We developed what we call a hybrid green roof system, which has the benefits of both modular and built-in-place green roof methods without the drawbacks of either approach. We achieved that through a patented design whereby we extended the height of the container module temporarily using what we call a Soil Elevator. That is a plastic collar that inserts into pegs near the sidewall of a 3¼‑inch-deep module and allows you to place 4¼ inches of soil in it. We fill those up, plant them, and grow them until the module itself is fully covered. Then we install the module and remove the inserts. This provides the appearance and function of a continuous, built-in-place green roof system. We’ve also introduced our own line of aluminum edging called RoofEdge, which is available in multiple sizes and finishes and is used to contain the soil and protect the modules at the perimeter of the green roof. We also have developed and manufacture RoofStone, a paver with an integrated base designed to work seamlessly with the LiveRoof system. 

Also crucial to our success is the team that we built to grow and represent LiveRoof throughout North America. We work with a group of fantastic, like-minded horticulturalists who really understand the demands of their local climates and have decades of experience in the nursery and landscape trades. Through this team, we usually can supply green roofs grown within 500 miles of the building site, using locally sourced engineered soil and plants. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about how your green roof system can help mitigate or eliminate storm water runoff in an urban setting. 

Amber Ponce: Anywhere you have a building and a roof, you have an impervious surface that has disrupted the natural hydrology of the site, meaning that there will inevitably be more runoff from it. By replacing some of the lost soil and vegetation, we’re restoring the site’s ability to manage storm water to something more like its ability prior to the introduction of a building. By acting as something of a natural sponge and wick, the soil and vegetation help reduce the overall amount of water that runs off the roof. The other thing green roofs do, which is important for managing storm water, is reduce the peak flow. When there is a heavy downpour, it is initially managed and absorbed by the green roof system. Only after the roof reaches the point of saturation will the water start to run off. This delays the peak flush and gives the municipal storm water system a bit more time to manage the storm water running off impervious surfaces. Further, our RoofBlue system elevates the green roof to create a gap between the green roof module and the membrane. Used in combination with control flow drains, RoofBlue allows for a metered amount of water to flow off the roof. This further detains and slows that heavy peak runoff. Generally, these systems are designed so that water will not stand on the roof for more than 24 hours, in line with warranty requirements typical of roof membrane manufacturers. The gap created by the RoofBlue risers prevents the plant roots from sitting in standing water, which can damage plant health over time. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your Grand Rapids Downtown Market project. 

Amber Ponce: At that site, the green roof system doesn’t cover the entire roof, and there are other areas of the roof where storm water runs off and is collected in a cistern. The cistern is used to irrigate a sizable outdoor green wall system supplied by LiveWall, LLC, a sister company of LiveRoof. The designers of this project paid close attention to managing the site’s water. The site’s management of onsite water was a key contributor toward its LEED Gold certification. Because the green wall itself is vertical, it only has a small amount of surface area that can naturally catch rainwater. However, it consumes captured runoff water and thus manages a good amount of the storm water that is collected from the roof surface. 

Municipal Water Leader: Aside from storm water runoff mitigation, why else might a business entity or a municipality install a green roof or a green wall? 

Amber Ponce: Some municipalities mandate or incentivize green roofs because they help mitigate the urban heat island effect. A green roof helps to cut down on the amount of heat that is absorbed and later radiated through the process of evapotranspiration—the process by which plants take up water and release it during photosynthesis while water simultaneously evaporates from the soil. From the perspective of a private entity or a building owner, this can achieve a modest level of energy savings, since the project may need less air conditioning. The same cooling effect also helps cool the building floor below the green roof. Additionally, if the HVAC air intakes are rooftop mounted, the plants reduce the temperature of the air taken into the system and reduce the resulting energy required to cool the air. 

If your green roof is accessible to the people who live or work in a building, they can gather or hold rooftop meetings on it. This access to nature has been demonstrated to contribute to improved wellness, attendance, productivity, and creativity. We do quite a bit of work in healthcare, because studies have shown that patients with access to nature show a decreased need for pain management after procedures and recovery more quickly. Similarly, employees in healthcare are under a high amount of pressure and stress. By providing staff a rooftop garden that is closed to patients and visitors but available as a place of respite, you’re giving them the opportunity to refuel, recharge, and defuse their stress in a natural environment.. 

Municipal Water Leader: One of the early projects that your company was involved with was a hospital green roof that you worked on with HDR engineering. Would you tell us about that project and its role in the history and development of your company? 

Amber Ponce: That project was Metro Health Hospital in Allendale, Michigan. We supplied the plants for that project, and we also helped supply the labor. It was one of the earlier large-scale green roofs implemented in western Michigan. That green roof is on a lower level and is visible from a number of windows in patient rooms and in public areas for visitors. This was a key aspect of the vision for this state-of-the-art facility. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the culture of innovation at your company. 

An aerial view of Metro Health Hospital's green roof.

Amber Ponce: At one point, we had a consultant come in to train our staff and to conduct audits, using the lean manufacturing principles that were becoming more prevalent in automotive and hard-good manufacturing. That led to a culture that emphasizes continually improving every aspect of our work at every turn. For example, before we had this culture change, we primarily used chemicals to manage pests and weeds. We also had high amounts of waste consisting of plants dumped either because they had health issues or they were unsold due to overproduction. By examining the conditions that led to weeds and pests, we were able to implement what is called integrated pest management. We use mechanical or natural preventative methods in our daily work and only resort to chemicals as a last resort. We also switched to customer-focused production, which involves sitting down with our customers, interviewing them, and explicitly asking them about their needs for the coming year. We then plan production based on what customers have told us. The result is that we have better sell-through and availability for the most in-demand plants and many fewer wasted plants at the end of the growing season. This practice of seeking customer input helped spur the LiveRoof division. Without this reputation for implementing changes based upon customer feedback, we would likely have either been late to the game or have missed out completely on the expansion of the green roof market in North America. 

Our employees are trained to present ideas, and we have a program in which every single idea that is voiced by someone on our team, whether it originates with a customer or whether it is simply their own observation or idea, is evaluated. We either explain why we’re not going to implement the idea or ensure that it does get implemented. Many of these ideas are not groundbreaking, but they incrementally improve the quality of our offerings and satisfaction amongst our teammates. We call the program the Voice of the Customer (VOC). 

Municipal Water Leader: So, if anyone in your company has an idea, they write this idea down and submit it, and then they either get an explanation of why it won’t work or the idea is implemented? 

Amber Ponce: That’s correct. Employees don’t have to submit the idea to their supervisor, and the idea doesn’t have to get preapproved or go up some chain. Instead, the idea goes directly to the person who oversees the relevant area of the company. For example, if I had an idea related to something happening in the shipping department, instead of submitting it to my supervisor, I would give it directly to the shipping manager. The shipping manager is responsible for responding to me directly with an evaluation of and plan for the idea. Our program is bilingual, because the horticultural industry generally employs many Spanish-speaking individuals, and we’re no exception. We make the forms available in both English and Spanish, and the response and explanation is provided in the native language of the person who suggested the idea. 

Municipal Water Leader: Do you keep track of how many ideas come out of each department? 

Amber Ponce: Yes. We keep all the submissions in a binder, and each employee has a tab. At the end of the year, during their appraisal, their supervisor generally takes a look at the ideas they contributed. Our supervisors do not emphasis how many ideas were actually implemented, but rather how many ideas were suggested. We recognize that every idea— whether we implemented or not—is a learning opportunity. 

In our weekly meetings, I ask our team, “What new VOCs have you voiced? Are you evaluating any from other people?” One of my colleagues has a goal to submit at least one per month, because in his position, he frequently interacts with both internal and external customers. We need our colleagues who work most closely with our clients to discuss their problems and seek out solutions. Generally, the best way to delight a customer is to listen to them and show them that we genuinely value their input. Welcoming criticism is not something that comes naturally, but if we can do it, we can use the feedback constructively to identify challenges, develop new solutions, and introduce in-demand products quickly and efficiently. 

Amber Ponce is the business development manager of LiveRoof Global LLC. She can be reached at amberp@liveroof.com.