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Ecogardens/ Meghan Schiller/ MEDILL

Ecogardens completed this green roof in Bucktown with local plants and materials

Ecogardens earns green, landscapes the future

by Meghan Schiller
Feb 22, 2012

Meghan Schiller/ MEDILL

If you took a helicopter ride above the Chicago skyline this summer, you’d see a lot of green--green roofs to be exact. Part of a larger trend towards sustainable architecture, green roofs are catching on in the Windy City and are now planted atop local Walmart stores, homes and even City Hall.

Greg Raymond is the founder of Ecogardens and a supporter of green roofing. His Chicago-based urban landscape firm just moved its office to Bucktown. The company uses sustainable materials to minimize the carbon footprint of its work and promotes energy-efficiency and the conservation of resources.

Sitting comfortably in a Caribou Coffee near the Blue Line’s Damen stop, Raymond, 47, is the first to admit a green business is slow in the wintertime, but that doesn’t mean it has to freeze with the flowers. Watch him swipe through the project pictures on his iPad and you may forget the ground outside is partially frozen.

“In the fourth quarter things began to trail off and a lot of projects got shoved to second quarter of this year,” admitted Raymond. “If the fourth quarter would have been solid, we would have broken records, but someone turned the switch off.”

Even with the economy’s recent lack luster performance, Ecogardens continues to thrive, thanks to affluent clients and large businesses. With 2011 revenues totaling in the neighborhood of $1 million, Ecogardens’ fourth-quarter earnings were slightly lower than Raymond was targeting due to delayed project start dates and additional operating expenses. But despite the fourth-quarter drop off, annual revenues increased 10 percent from 2010 to 2011.

But Raymond is thankful for the Chicago building ordinance that says businesses such as Walmart may exceed building size limitations if planners incorporate a green roof.

“If businesses go green with either a roof or any other way, they can often expand beyond the floor to area ratio that zoning ordinances allow. You can get away with more,” said Raymond.

A green roof is a roof that is partially or completely covered with plants and vegetation, planted on top of a waterproofing membrane. Drainage and irrigation systems are often included in the final project.

“Being part of the installation team for the 73,000 square feet of green roof on Walmart has been one of the projects I’m most proud of,” said Raymond. “There are two more being built and the new store we’re working on in Chatham,” on the South Side.

A normal roof needs to be replaced every 10 to 15 years, but Raymond says a green roof will at least double or triple that lifetime. The energy benefits result from the roof’s absorption of less heat. Electrical units and air-conditioning will also operate better if surrounded by a modest amount of greenery.

Residential green roof prices range from $20 to $30 per square feet installed. For the newest Walmart in Chatham, Ecogardens will create 130,000 square feet of green roof at a discounted rate of $7-$10 per square foot due to the extensive size of the project.

On average, Ecogardens completes 10 to 15 projects a quarter and most of them run between $10,000 and $30,000. Some projects can take up to eight months to complete. Quarterly revenues range from $100,000 and $450,000.

If a business or homeowner lacks the funds to invest in a complete green roof, half-green roof options exist.

A 50 percent green and 50 percent Energy Star white roof is the most common. UV rays and heat from the sun cause roof systems to age prematurely. Black roofs reach 170 degrees on a hot day, making air conditioners work harder, but white roofs reach only 110 degrees. Because of the white color, the roof reflects a majority of the light rather than absorbing it. One drawback, however, is that pollution can turn a white roof to gray and lessen its reflectivity.

Ecogardens doesn’t just help big businesses go green--its projects include homes as well. Prices for projects such as rooftop gardens with living space, prices are $100 per square foot.

Thomas McGrath recently hired Ecogardens and completed a “green-rehab” of his Bucktown home using only sustainable and recycled materials.

“I got the best feeling with Greg and his individual mission,” said McGrath. “He’s local to Bucktown where my building is and I wanted to give more urban people some business.

Although McGrath currently owns his latest rehab property, he also speculates in real estate and plans to develop other green properties. A veteran of the health-care management field, he felt jumping into green development was “an opportunity to move on and follow my bliss.”

“Green building isn’t that much more expensive. What is more expensive is quality building,” said McGrath” “In the ‘90s and 2000s homes being built had almost zero insulation, crappy windows, and people didn’t care what was behind the wall as long as it had granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances.”

For these reasons, he hired Ecogardens, to complete some projects that were part of his top-to-bottom rehab. The building now boasts a concrete floor with radiant floor heating, reused brick, a light-colored aluminum reflective roof, a solar-electric array on the garage to provide all the electric energy, gardens and a water irrigation cistern buried in the yard. He spent roughly $33,000 on his green landscaping features.

The rainwater harvesting irrigation cistern, buried underground, collects all rainwater and stores it for use in the home. The feature was one of the many landscape features that Raymond’s firm completed at the Bucktown property.

“Greg was highly collaborative,” said McGrath. “He gave good input and was very influential in selection and recommendation of the 1,000-gallon rain system buried in the yard.”

Raymond says 60 percent of his operating costs are labor and materials. “The rest are overhead costs, including insurance,” said Raymond. “We have to carry a lot of liability insurance.”

It all started at Michigan State. He was majoring in fisheries and wildlife, but Raymond knew that his degree likely wouldn’t pay the bills.

“My roommate at the time was a landscape architect student, so I thought why not try it out?” he said. “I took a class, aced it and thought: ‘This is my calling.’”

Fast forward to 2006. Raymond had owned two landscaping companies but he still felt something was missing in the traditional landscaping business.

“The biggest issue with the traditional landscape industry is chemicals,” said Raymond. “Everyone wants green grass, weed free lawns. It’s suburbia. You know?”

So he conceived an idea for a landscaping firm that uses zero chemicals. He sold off his second company to fund his new endeavor.

“I wanted to make an impact and saw the need for green landscaping and the need for the sustainable aspect,” he said. “I saw that this could be a great niche market from a business standpoint.”

Founded six years ago, Ecogardens offers green landscaping alternatives to homeowners and large businesses. The company’s services include green roofs, rooftop gardens, living walls, rain-water harvesting and drip-irrigation systems.

The company favors local materials, using engineered soils from the western suburbs and plants from nurseries within 50 miles.

Although Raymond’s materials are local, his plans for the future are far-reaching.

“I’m taking the company in a different direction in terms of winter and away from snow removal,” said Raymond. He adds that snow removal brings in income but snowfall has been dismal as of late.

Raymond is moving his work indoors for the winter period by creating living walls, which are free standing walls covered in vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen to cleanse the air.

“We’re doing a lot more living walls inside, which have huge indoor air quality benefits.”