LIVING ROOFS – A catalyst for building communities

1. Introduction

This article is based what we have been discovering through the development of a Living Roof on top of an office building in Kings Cross, Central London. The project has been a high level collaboration between Global Generation (, an Educational Charity, and the Office Group (, which provides Boutique Serviced Offices to 35 Small to Medium Enterprises. has provided consultancy on biodiversity and the creation of a base plate of membranes and secondary aggregates.
The plan has been to create a break out space for tenants of the offices which doubles as an outdoor classroom for children and young people in the local area.  Whilst in its first year of development, this pilot project is already providing a blue print for other community business partnerships in creating Green Roofs that include social and educational dimensions along with the proven benefits to biodiversity.
The project is based in Kings Cross, one of Europe’s largest brown fill sites, which, with the creation of the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link, is now becoming one of Europe’s largest developments; an area of massive upheaval and in many ways huge potential.  Established communities of people, plants and animals have been disrupted and, in some instances, lost. The work is now to rebuild these communities by creating new environments for biodiversity to thrive and for people to form new and positive relationships.

“I support this exciting project as a good example of how we should demonstrate the multiple benefits that living roofs offer to London, including their capacity to raise knowledge and awareness” – Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London

Jane Riddiford – Global Generation Trustee / Co-Founder

2. Background: why the project happened
For the last three years, Global Generation has been involved in giving children and young people from London hands-on experiences with nature through camps on Pertwood Organic Farm in Wiltshire, an unspoiled rural area in the UK. In this environment, we observed how children and adults, from all walks of life, dropped some of the ideas that kept them in separate worlds and came together as a group more readily. For many, the experience of being in the depths of nature was completely unfamiliar, and they felt and responded to the tangible co-operation of the ecosystem around them and often began to care about something more than themselves. We also felt the emergence of a pioneering spirit, both in ourselves and in the children we work with – that vital sense of adventure and the boldness to try and make new things happen – something which is often missing in the pressure of city life.

“It was a good experience, to see the similarities in how wildlife works together and how we can all work together. I understand now that we all have similar needs.” – participant, 14 years

2.1 Why a “Living Roof“?
Part of Global Generation’s mission has been to support these same young people to make a difference in their own urban environments on an ongoing basis. This has led us to think about how we could create the same context in the heart of the city, in an environment that would encourage people to come together with the confidence that things could change.
We wondered what a city would be like that really functioned as a natural ecosystem. In other words, how a community of people could function as a whole unit, together with the environment. We wanted to find new ground in the city to support the biodiversity that was being lost through building development and also to support new ideas and new ways of working amongst people. Through this enquiry, we realised that an opportunity was on our doorstep: acres of un-chartered territory lay on the roofs of London, waiting for something to happen.
Our first Living Roof project was made possible in large part to the rich business charity partnership between the Office Group and Global Generation. After a conscious decision to turn down the potential revenue of installing a mobile phone mast on the roof, the Office Group took a leap of faith by inviting Global Generation to use them as a “guinea-pig.” Since then, they have been discovering that it is possible to “put something back” into the community and the environment and, as a result, do better business, in short creating true sustainable development. The second part of this paper discusses the collaboration from the Office Groups perspective.

2.2 Global Generations Core Objectives
•    To provide a catalyst for taking education out of the classroom into real life situations and,
as a consequence, extend career and life choices;
•    To find ways for business to become involved in the community and
the environment and still meet financial bottom lines;
•    To develop a creative space that supports the biodiversity of Kings Cross and encourages
people to work together;
•    To establish an educational model to inspire and inform other school business partnerships,
particularly related to “Green or Living Roof Development” – which is a constraint on much
of the Kings Cross Development;
•    To evaluate and address climate change issues, through monitoring programmes i.e.
potential/actual energy saving, awareness raising.

2.3 Natural Connections – Bringing together different strands of the community through other partnerships
Particularly exciting about the project has been the involvement of many individuals and organisations who have brought children, young people, and a wealth of skills, experience and contacts.

• – led by Dusty Gedge, a specialist in Green Roofs designed for biodiversity,
particularly Black Red Starts
•    Six form biology students from La Sainte Union Secondary School which holds specialist
science status
•    Local Children from Calthorpe Community Garden (across the road from the roof)
•    Children and Youth Mentors from Rise Phoenix
•    African and Caribbean Children from Kori Cultural Club
•    Excluded and ex offending boys from The Westway Motor Project
•    Hampstead Heath Conservation Team – one of London’s largest parks
•    London Swifts

2.4 Projects on the Roof – Involving children and young people in all aspects of the development
In order to encourage ownership of the roof by children and young people in the local community and business clients in the building, the roof has been developed through a staged workshop process beginning with the creation of a safety fence and laying the base plate of membrane and secondary aggregates.
Workshops have included:

•    Construction – welding & metal work to build the safety fence;
•    Building and mounting swift boxes;
•    Aggregate spreading – 20 tons of secondary aggregate dropped in by a crane provided by
The Channel Tunnel Rail Link contractors;
•    Seed sowing– a mix of wild flowers and grasses;
•    Monitoring of flora and fauna;
•    Stone carving of local endangered species outlined in London’s Biodiversity Action Plan.
The roof will provide habitat for swifts, black redstart, stag beetles;
•    Wooden floor mosaic for a central meeting area;
•    Poetry inspired by the journey of the swifts;
•    Mural Painting of local wildlife ;
•    Gardening and willow weaving.

Wherever possible the materials used have been locally sourced or recycled, which provides a catalyst for education about wider issues.  These materials include:

•    20 tons of aggregate: glass sand from recycled bottles, filter sand and fly ash from Thames
Water’s purification beds, crushed brick and concrete from Kings Cross;
•    Solid pine beams from a piano warehouse in Kentish Town;
•    Birch and Oak wooden cheeses from Hampstead Heath;
•    Woodchip from Hampstead Heath;
•    Wood and stones from Global Generations Campsite in Wiltshire.

2.5 From Living Roof to Living Building
Children and the concept behind the Living Roof were first introduced into the building through a photography project. Through a three-day photography workshop, local children learned about the biodiversity of Kings Cross and the need for replacing habitats. Working with a professional photographer, they took hundreds of photos out of which 12 were selected, along with their quotes, to form a permanent exhibition in the building.
The Office Group have now commissioned a local organic shop to run a café in the building, which will link with Global Generations Healthy Food and Fitness Programme.  As we are beginning to build relationships with the businesses in the building we hope that opportunities for work experience will develop for teenagers involved in the roof and ideally a collaborative audit, green procurement and stewards programme.
Through hands-on involvement in the Living Roof and related Global Generation projects (e.g. residents at Pertwood, Global Citizen Tree Planting Days), it is hoped that some of the business occupants will come to experience a deeper understanding of what a living building could be, ie. that we are all part of one delicately balanced living organism. Out of this will arise the desire to make the economic and social choices that will protect our environment and contribute to the communities we live and work in.

2.6 Challenges and solutions – (from Global Generation’s perspective)
From the outset it was clear that The Office Group was taking a big risk in welcoming Global Generation to deliver projects on and in the building. The last few months have revealed some of these risks, and why more businesses education collaborations tend to be “after-hours” pursuits.

Challenge Solution
Time frames – marrying the need of The Office Group to get things done yesterday with the need to mesh with either the school curriculum or holiday periods Good communication between The Office Group and Global Generation and The Office Group with business clients in the building.
Would a children’s environment undermine the fact that the roof space was also designed for the clients to both socialise and conduct high level business meetings? Ensuring that Global Generation and the children we work with are aware that part of our work is to enhance a business environment. This has proved to be an asset, by adding a greater sense of responsibility to all involved.
Would the work done by children be of an inferior standard, and undermine the professional atmosphere of the building? Involvement of high quality workshop leaders and genuine understanding by children that they were creating something real that truly mattered.
Kids running through the building making noise and disrupting business Use of back stair well and formal introduction by Charlie Green, director of the Office Group at the start of each workshop programme. High adult to child ratio

2.7 Funding the project
To date, the project has cost just over £14,000. However it has provided a flagship to attract directly and indirectly £78,000 of additional funding to support Global Generations other projects e.g. Camps at Pertwood Organic Farm and a Healthy Food and Fitness programme.

pie chart

Figure 1: Pie chart showing in-kind and financial support attracted by
the Living Roof project to support the work of Global Generation

Global Generation is grateful for the generous support of: Ainscough and Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Bauder, Camden Local Agenda 21Grants, Camden Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, Hampstead Heath Conservation Team –JE Hyde, JJ Trust and the Mark Leonard Trust, La Sainte Union School,, London Swifts, NHS – Primary Care Trust, The Office Group, Rail Link Countryside Initiative

2.8 Next steps
Confident that the model works, Global Generation is looking to expand its portfolio of projects both with the Office Group and with other organisations. We are committed to exploring how the Living Roof Concept can provide an aerial pathway to link different parts of the community. For example, we would be interested in creating living roofs on housing estates twinned with a living roof on an office building in the local area, or a school twinned with a hospital or sports stadium. All roofs will add to biodiversity and some may have a particular theme e.g. energy, art or food production. We now feel it is vital that all projects have true collaborations, both on an emotional and on a financial level with the building owners and managers.


2.9 Conclusion
In all of the projects we have found that the Living roof has captured the imagination of people, young and old alike – genuinely providing fertile ground for new ideas.

“I never realised you could do things like this on an office building; it makes me think of all the things we could do in London.” – 14-year-old Global Generation participant.

People seem to be more receptive about wider issues, such as biodiversity, recycling, vocational training, climate change, creativity and citizenship. We have found enthusiasm for the project emerging from the most unlikely quarters, making them question how they do business. One supporter is a shipping broker who is starting to think about how his ships could be carbon neutral. A living roof could just prove to be the hair on the head of a healthy building and, in turn, a healthy city.


Charlie Green – Director, The Office Group

3. Introduction

The Office Group buys vacant freehold office buildings in Central London, carries out comprehensive refurbishments and then lets the space out to a variety of small and medium sized businesses on a Serviced Office basis.

This young company is only 2 years old, and has a young management team. Our approach to business is strictly commercially motivated, but we’ve always been aware of social and environmental issues (conserving energy where possible and arranging for recycling on behalf of our tenants).

3.1 Why Green Roofs?

We acquired our building on Gray’s Inn Road in King’s Cross in October 2004. On our initial inspection of the building, it was clear that the roof was easily accessible and provided good space, so our first thoughts were to put down some decking and an umbrella, to provide use of this outdoor space for our tenants.

Following a random meeting with Global Generation, it became clear that we could create this useable space from nothing, yet at the same time put something back into the community and the environment.  We also saw this additional investment as an opportunity to be different from our competition.  In London, and in our market, any chance to set yourself apart from the pack is taken.

3.2 Objectives

Once we committed to the Green Roof, our objectives included the following:

•    Compliance with Health & Safety regulations (which the roof in its original state failed to do)
•    Create a break out area and meeting area for our tenants that was in a wholly different,
but attractive, environment
•    In so doing, have a Unique Selling Point to the building and use this as a strong marketing
•    Ensuring that the roof was watertight so maintenance would be at a minimum – a cost that
would not otherwise be incurred with our original plan of a few chairs and decking
•    Create a bio-diverse environment
•    Work with the local community through Global Generation
•    Doing all of this within a limited budget

3.3 Challenges
There have been a number of challenges along the way, and it has been a process of finding a balance with Global, both learning as we go.

Challenge Solution
Works to the existing roof – the hand rail had to be raised, but the biggest fear was ensuring that the roof would be watertight, on a budget Works to the hand rail were carried out at a fraction of the cost of commercial quotes.
Work was carried out on the roof that was not as professional as we would have liked, but has to date done a job. I try not to think about it too much!
Weight restrictions A second opinion proved that we didn’t have to spend £20k on strengthening works, but we still have to ensure that a limited number of people can be up there at any one time (albeit this is a healthy 35-40)
Quality of the Garden – with the Global children doing much of the work, there was a real concern that it would not look professional, inviting etc The supervisors with the children were excellent, and the range of ages meant that older students were involved in most of the actual finishes and look of the space
Children in an office environment A major concern was potential disruption to our tenants as much of the work was carried out during business hours. There have been a few complaints on noise levels etc. but mostly the tenants have not had a problem with it, given the end result
There has been the somewhat unavoidable issue of mess in the building, and some redecoration has been needed, but again this is about managing the process
Dealing with a Charity Not so much a challenge, but certainly a learning curve, trying to find the balance between being able to offer opportunities to the charity and retaining a professional building
On-going maintenance issues We have experienced some problems, with drainage run-off problems, but so far, provided there is close monitoring, there should be limited problems

3.4 The Impact

The essence of having this roof for us as a business has achieved 2 distinct objectives:

•    As a business we’ve met in Global Generation a social and environmental agenda that we
didn’t know we wanted. Now we have them, we wouldn’t change a thing.
•    We have the enormous benefit of having a competitive edge over our competition. There is
no question that this roof has added to the saleability of the office space.

We can directly attribute the roof to a number of tenants’ decisions to move into the building – as much for the use of the roof as for our attitude in working with the community and, at a time when climate change is an ever-present issue, doing our bit for the environment.

We have found that most of our tenants are interested in contributing in a positive way to environmental issues, but few have the time, money or inclination to actually do something about it.  Our roof gives them the vicarious ‘feel good’ factor, so by simply letting our space, they are making a difference without having to do anything further.


3.5 The future

The Office Group will look into Green Roofs on all future acquisitions. We’ll also work with Global Generation on every project we can. Global Generation will give us the route to investing in the community, and also allow us to benefit from the fund raising they are able to secure, reducing our capital costs.


3.6 Conclusion

In the UK property industry, there is much talk of sustainable development, carbon emissions and climate change. At the moment, however, it is mostly talk and there is real apathy to making changes that will address these issues. This is largely borne out of the fact that most commercial landlords do not believe that the economics work – that tenants will pay a premium rent to reflect the additional cost.

I believe we, at Gray’s Inn, have proved that it’s not about achieving a higher rent, but rather about improving the lettability of your building. As mentioned, we can directly attribute a number of our client’s decisions to let space from us rather than our competitors due to the roof, not the price.

We’re not charging a higher rent for the privilege of the roof, but rather we use it to distinguish us from the pack in a tremendously positive and topical way. We may not get a higher rent, but the cost of the roof has not required that, because we have covered the cost by reducing our voids. Rather than simply saving on costs or looking to break even, we’re aiming for the roof on Gray’s Inn Road, and other buildings we may have, to directly contribute to our bottom line profit, without detracting from our core business.