Green Roof Q&A with Managing Director of Optigreen Ltd, Nick Day

What was your path into construction and to your current position?

I have been involved in the construction industry for most of my working life in various technical sales and management roles. I initially sold underground drainage systems and then got a position with a roof waterproofing manufacturer. I then spent over 25 years working within the roof waterproofing sector before joining Optigrun nearly 10 years ago as a technical sales manager, becoming a director of the UK company in 2014 and managing director in 2017.

With regards to green roofing, how is the sector performing and do you anticipate growth in this area considering the government’s climate change targets?

The green roof sector is currently in a very healthy state and definitely on a growth trajectory. Historically, the green roof market was very much centred around London and the South- East with the GLA (Greater London Authority) adopting planning measures to encourage the wider use of green roofs in new build construction. More recently, other metropolitan and local authorities around the UK have developed their own policies and green roofs are now being specified nationally.

With this in mind, what more should the government be doing to incentivise green roofs in towns and cities throughout the UK?

The government could definitely do more to encourage green roof construction, but I think at least some of the incentive has to come through legislation. We have a German parent company and the green roof market there is far more advanced than it is in the UK. Historically though the wide adoption of green roofs in Germany has been through regional government legislation and incentives. With the issues we face here, as elsewhere in the world, around climate change and biodiversity loss green roofs would be a relatively easy win for the government towards the task of creating new biodiverse habitat as well as helping with the task of flood alleviation.

We seem to be experiencing more severe weather patterns on a more regular basis now – is the message around the role that green / blue roofs can play in reducing the impact of severe rainfall getting through to building owners and developers?

In my opinion, we are starting to get the message through but there is a long way to go. There needs to be a sea change in the way roofs on new buildings are designed so that the adoption of green and blue roofs becomes a more commonplace measure to help manage surface water runoff. We need to make sure, however, that a holistic approach is taken on individual projects and that it’s not just a “box ticking” exercise

How important is it to keep raising the profile of green roofs, as well as focusing on the importance of best practice when it comes design, specification and installation?

It’s very important and it’s something we are doing both at individual manufacturer/ supplier level as well as through our industry trade body. We established GRO (Green Roof Organisation) as a trade association a couple of years ago with this in mind. One of our aims at GRO is to help promote green roofs and their wide benefits at all levels and, in particular, local and national government level. Alongside this GRO is establishing training programmes to upskill the industry. We also launched our revised GRO Green Roof Code earlier this year to provide the necessary design guidelines for specifiers.

Is there a danger that building owners and other specifiers aren’t aware of the various options available and important differentiations when specifying a green roof? – Is there enough awareness that a green roof is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution?

There is a slightly better understanding of green roofs than there was four or five years ago. However, I’m afraid too many green and blue roof specifications we see within the industry are quite poor and do little to convey what is required. For this reason, many projects are under-budgeted in terms of the roof element and as a result  cost cutting or even omission of the green roof altogether can sometimes occur. I would encourage specifiers and contractors to speak to green roof manufacturers and suppliers, or GRO, to get the technical support that’s available.

What are some of the more common mistakes designers and installers make when it comes to green roof projects?

General lack of detail, incorrect specification of drainage and reservoir layers, an assumption sometimes that site derived material can be used as the substrate layer and inadequate provision of water supply to irrigate the roof during the aftercare phase.

What are some of the myths that exist around green roofs? Is there one that particularly annoys you?

That green roofs don’t need any maintenance. For the record, all green (and blue roofs for that matter) need regular maintenance visits to continue to perform successfully.

If there was one roof that you could green anywhere in the UK, which one would it be?

In reality, any roof that could be, but which isn’t! I would imagine there would have been a greater number of green roofs on the  Olympic Park in London  if it was being designed now. Although it wasn’t designed to have one the London Aquatic Centre for example would have looked great with a green roof.

Can you tell us about a green roof project you’re particularly proud to have been involved with…

Whilst I’m proud of all the roofs we have been involved with, The BFI Film Archive Building with its 42-degree pitched green roof and Bransholme Pumping Station in Hull with the country’s first removeable green roof come to mind.

We’re hearing a lot about material supply and pricing challenges throughout construction – is this the biggest challenge affecting the supply chain currently? If so, what would your advice be to installers?

This is a problem for everyone in the construction industry at present. My advice to main contractors and installers is to plan ahead as much as you can with your material requirements and to no longer expect a “just in time” supply chain. Good forward planning will also help to manage some of the commercial pressures from the price volatility we are all currently experiencing.

What other challenges do you feel are currently impacting the supply chain?

The effects of Brexit and the pandemic have impacted the haulage and distribution sector massively and this has affected the supply chain for construction in a big way. This has also resulted in large increases in haulage costs for manufacturers and suppliers over a fairly short period of time. The added administration and paperwork as a consequence of Brexit has also added cost and lead to an increase in lead times for products being imported from manufacturing plants in the EU. I do believe that we may have got used to relatively cheap transport in the past and that we will need to learn to live with higher costs to ensure we have reliable and flexible transport and distribution infrastructure in the future.

If you had one piece of advice about working and progressing within the construction sector, what would it be?

The construction industry can provide some fantastic career opportunities either for those people just starting their working lives or others looking to make a career change. That one piece of advice would be to make sure you take every training opportunity you can. Being well trained and qualified in whatever area of the industry you’re involved with will help you to progress and, more importantly, will give you more job satisfaction.

What have you learned about your role and construction in general over the last year-and-a-half whilst operating during the pandemic? Are there lessons you’ll take forward with you?

A key word would be flexibility. We were fortunate at Optigrun not to have to furlough staff but we had to change the way we worked very quickly to maintain the level of service our customers expected from us. The wellbeing and health of my colleagues was also paramount and, like many companies we have retained a so-called hybrid working environment since the early days of the pandemic where our team mix working in the office and from home.

After what’s been a particularly challenging couple of years for construction, are there reasons to be positive within the green roof sector and the wider construction industry going forward?

Yes plenty. For one thing with our industry body GRO is now going from strength to strength and we will be spreading the message about green roofs to an ever-wider audience. Also, the adoption of green roofs on a wider national basis now will present new opportunities for everyone as will the increasing use of biosolar and blue roofs. 

Interview first published in Greenscape Magazine, Winter Issue 2021