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Green Roof Policy Requires Pragmatic, Flexible Approach

Evidence suggests making our cities more resilient through techniques like LEED, green roofs and cool roofs really works


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Denver has long been recognized as a leader in sustainability. The community keenly understands the dangers posed by climate change, and we’ve taken steps to protect this place we call home.  

But there is no doubt that as Denver continues to grow in both population and physical size, the city is experiencing a different kind of environmental issue. A 2014 study by the research organization Climate Central found we have one of the worst “heat island” effects in the country, a phenomenon where urban areas are warmer due to buildings, pavement, a concentration of vehicles and other human activity. Denver was nearly five degrees hotter than nearby rural areas — meanwhile, this June has been one of the hottest in the city’s history.

Denver residents actively attempted to combat this issue when they passed a citizen-initiated ballot measure to mandate green roofs in 2017. Many green building advocates enthusiastically support the goals that the Denver Green Roof Initiative aims to achieve. A longstanding joke among professionals preparing for the LEED Accredited Professional exam is if you don’t know the answer, go with green roofs. That’s because a successful green roof strategy can help earn LEED points in almost every credit category.

Despite the synergies with LEED, USGBC Colorado Market Leaders opted not to support the ballot measure. Green roofs are a great way to combat the heat island effect but are not the only way. Different buildings require varying approaches to design and operation. While the Denver Green Roof Initiative as passed is well-intentioned, it requires tweaks and improvements to ensure builders and developers have a wide range of options available to provide healthy, safe and sustainable buildings.    

A modified policy recently drafted by Denver’s Green Roofs Task Force represents the ideal opportunity to ensure the city grows in a healthy, prosperous way while keeping project costs reasonable. With the need for flexibility in mind, the draft policy provides alternative compliance options including installing reflective roofing materials, meeting energy efficiency benchmarks, or achieving LEED Gold certification.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building certification program in the world. It’s commonly used and well understood by building professionals, especially here in Colorado – we’re one of only two states to make the annual Top 10 States for LEED list every year since it began in 2010.

Colorado currently has 979 certified commercial projects across the state, 530 of which are in Denver. LEED buildings save energy, water and resources, and generate less waste while supporting human health. It’s also a framework that’s built to be customizable – project teams pursuing LEED certification are able to identify the best strategies for meeting a project’s unique design and resource needs. This adaptability makes LEED a vital tool for improving the options available to builders under the green roof policy.

There’s good evidence that making our cities more resilient through the use of techniques like LEED, green roofs and cool roofs really works.

A recent study from the consulting agency Capital-E, and partnering with USGBC, found that investing in resilient technologies makes for healthier, cooler and more equitable cities. The study, which focused on Washington D.C., Philadelphia and El Paso, found that an investment in these technologies would reduce greenhouse gasses while providing net present values of $1.8 billion in Washington, D.C., $3.6 billion in Philadelphia, and $540 million in El Paso over a 40-year period. There’s no reason a comparable city like Denver – which already has a strategy to combat climate change and greenhouse gas emissions – can’t have the same impact.

The use of LEED and other alternative compliance options will help achieve the ultimate mission of the initiative:

To increase access to green spaces, improve water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit Denver’s heat island effect.

We commend the organizers and backers of the Denver Green Roof Initiative – they were motivated to see positive change in their community and they took it upon themselves to effect that change, with little financial backing or industry ties. They started a vital discussion that will benefit our city as it continues on its trajectory of growth. We also are impressed by their willingness to work with stakeholders to ensure that the policy is as effective and inclusive as possible.

Denver requires a flexible, pragmatic approach to developing both future and existing buildings. We encourage the City Council to move forward with the draft policy and make Denver a greener, healthier city.


Patti Mason is the Mountain Regional Director for the U.S. Green Building Council. She is also a proud Denver resident and Denver Public Schools parent.

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Patti Mason

Patti Mason is the director of USGBC Colorado. USGBC Colorado works to inspire, educate and connect people to transform where we live, learn, work and play.

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