I Hotel's roof goes green

CHAMPAIGN — The view out the upper-floor windows at Champaign's I Hotel got a little greener this fall.

About 3,000 square feet of the flat black roof over the adjacent University of Illinois Conference Center is now covered with a colorful mixture of hardy sedum plants, in shades of red, green and yellow.

A "green roof" was installed this fall with help from a $33,000 grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's Green Infrastructure Grant Program for Stormwater Management. Fox Development, which operates the hotel, covered the remaining $11,000 cost.

Peter Fox said landscaping is a priority for the company's projects, including the UI Research Park.

The technology has also improved in recent years, with plants available in lightweight trays that snap together and install easily, he said.

The green roof will help reduce energy consumption and provide "a very nice aesthetic" for hotel guests with views out their upper-story windows, as opposed to a plain black roof, Fox said.

"That was important to us," he said.

It's the latest green roof to be installed on campus, following others on the Business Instructional Facility, parts of the newly renovated Lincoln Hall, Newmark Lab, Forbes Natural History Survey, the Art and Design Building and Krannert Center for the Peforming Arts.

The I Hotel's roof was designed by Mary Ann Metz, a retired horticulturalist and self-described "plant nerd" who has partnered with Peter and Kim Fox on other landscaping projects for Fox Development. They worked with LiveRoof, a company that has installed green roofs throughout the country, including many in Chicago, Metz said.

The "roof" is actually made up of 1,500 specially designed 1-by-2-foot trays filled with two inches of lightweight soil. They are the shallowest available, as the roof structure couldn't support anything heavier, Metz said. An extra roof membrane material was put down under the trays as a precaution.

The roof was installed in one day this fall by Fox Development's landscaping crew, led by Juan Cruz.

One section contains a stock plant mixture, with six varieties of sedum. To create more pattern and interest, Metz and Fox Development designed a custom sedum blend for the rest of the roof in shades of red, yellow and blue-green. The plants can already be seen from the patio below peeking over the southern edge of the roof, and a gold trailing plant will be added to eventually spill over the side.

The plants are evergreen, blooming each spring and offering year-round color, designers said.

"It'll really be very pretty," Metz said.

Even though guests won't be able to go out on the roof, Metz and Fox plan to add stones along the edges and cover the walkways with an orange-red material to make it more attractive from above, Metz said. Peter Fox also hopes to add some lightweight sculpture.

The green roof frames pastoral views to the south and east of the Research Park and south farms.

"I hope it inspires other places," Metz said.

The plants are sturdy, low-maintenance and drought-resistant, Metz said.

"If we have a drought like we did this summer, we may have to water a couple of times," she said, adding that individual trays can be replaced easily if needed.

The plants and soil help insulate the roof, absorb and filter rainwater, improve air quality by consuming carbon dioxide and prevent roof deterioration by protecting it from harmful ultraviolet rays, Metz said.

Peter Fox doesn't expect to see "huge savings" on energy bills, but said green roofs can cut costs substantially in conjunction with solar panels and geothermal heating systems, which he is considering for future buildings.

Peter Fox plans to use cuttings from the plants to expand the I Hotel's green roof and seed others on buildings throughout the Research Park and his development on Fox Drive. He sees them as potential rooftop spaces that tenants can enjoy, or just as a means of energy conservation.

"We'd like to do every roof we own on Fox Drive and in the park," he said.

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