Introduction: Build a Living Roof / Green Roof

Picture of Build a Living Roof / Green Roof

Make a normal flat or sloped roof into a beautiful living garden.

While redeveloping our house we decided to install a living roof on our kitchen roof, why you ask.. well..:
1. I liked the idea of having a bit more greenery in the property (we live in central London)
2. We wanted somewhere for some wildlife to have (bees etc)
3. Insulation - green roofs are brilliant at insulating, both keeping heat in and cold out

Read on for how we did this

* As usual and mentioned millions of times on here - I take no responsibility for anyone following this and any maiming, death or damage which follows; nor world war or anything else :)

Step 1: Getting Started

Picture of Getting Started

After doing quite a bit of reading on the Internet, ok well an afternoon or so, I soon realised that there isn't a step by step instruction for building a roof garden, just lots of greenies saying how good they are, and lots of companies trying to sell you expensive stuff to do it - so i thought I'd give it a go myself.

Before putting anything on a roof you need to make sure its strong, very strong.
As we'd just had this roof made we ensured we'd had is strengthened - there are 10 joists under the roof, each bolted next to another joist and supported by a steel frame at either end - so its super strong just to be sure. 

I found online is that living roofs can weight anything up to 150KG per SqM, so I asked our builder and engineer to work to a dead weight of 150KG - whats a 'dead weight' I hear you ask - well.. thats the weight it'll be when there is just itself up there, a live weight is stuff like water (rain), snow or the bloke on a ladder trying to install a satellite dish.

All set? Roof ready, then read on!

Step 2: Theory and Shopping

Picture of Theory and Shopping

There are a number of types of living roof, ranging from the one I've made (enough for some simple grass, plants and anything else that comes along, right the way to full on living garden worlds, with trees, ponds and more - this isnt what we're after!

To keep the plants happy they need:
* - Soil to sit in
* - Some way of staying moist enough when it isn't raining (ideally we want this garden to be maintenance free)
* - Drainage so they dont get too wet (plants are tricky things to keep happy!)

Also you need to protect the building structure, so this is my recipe for making a living roof:

* - 1 x Roof - it'd be a normal garden if it wasnt on the roof!
* - 0 x Insulation - I had to put in some thermal insulation because our council building control couldn't calculate the U value for insulation of the living roof - after installing it this is way better than any fibreglass or fibrespan board - so you probably dont need this!
* - 2 x Pond liner  - this is to stop any of the roots, damp, greenery, water or any other stuff getting to the roof - I used 2 x liners to be extra safe
* - 1 x Root membrane - fancy name for the stuff you get in garden centres that stops weeds growing under decking/paths - This stops the roots and mud getting to the lower level of gravel, to help drainage
* - 2 x Gravel - A layer to go on top of the pond liner, and another to go on top of the root membrane
* - 1 x Moisture blanket - this is to help keep moisture in the soil - i used blankets used in hanging baskets, but they cost a ton - you can also use cardboard or old blankets - however I was concerned these may rot
* - 1 x Wood chips - More soil moisture goodness!
* - Compost - Food for the plants
* - Top soil - gives a bit more substance to the compost
* - Big stones to help with drainage at the edge and stop plants growing into the building
* - plants!

Step 3: Insulation and Protecting the Roof

Picture of Insulation and Protecting the Roof

I started with a fully functioning roof with felt already sealed on it, therefore I havent worried as much as you would need to do if doing this on a leaky roof.

The insulation was required by our local building control, but I dont believe this was needed - however if you want a SuperRoof! stick some on it, it cost very little and was the silver backed bubble wrap you get in building merchants.

So, the steps:
1. Roll out insulation on the roof and cut to size - nb:/ i did this on a very sunny day (yes we do occasionaly have them in London!) and it was blinding standing on a silver roof!
2. Roll out pond liner number 1 taking care to tuck it under any leading you've got at the edge of the roof - so rain water comes off any walls, hits the lead and then goes inside, rather than under, the pond liner
3. Once pond liner #1 is rolled out cut off any spare (making sure you've left a good 5 inch lip around the edge of the entire area
4. Use the cut off's to go under the area your roof drains to - in my case this is a drain off the side
5. Repeat the same with liner #2

Step 4: Draining and Root Stopping

Picture of Draining and Root Stopping

This bits easy

1. Pour on the bags of gravel - your looking to get just a single layer cover over the entire roof
2. Brush into place
3. Roll over the root membrane
4. Add some more gravel - I went for a layer of about 1.5 x the one under the root membrane (didnt get a photo of this sadly - close your eyes and imagine!)

Step 5: Keeping the Moisture In

Picture of Keeping the Moisture In

Now onto the soil and compost goodness!

1. Roll out the moisture blanket keeping a 6-8" space around all of the edges (I have read you can use old towels/cloths/sacks to achieve the same effect, basically this is to get damp and stay damp)
2. Put another layer of small stones over the moisture blanket
3. Put large gravel or pebbles around the edge of the roof in the space you've left - this is to ensure drainage at the bottom, and also stop the plants growing into the building
4. Use flashing tape (lead replacement self adhesive tape) to seal the pond liner to the edge of the building where there is no flashing - this makes sure that no water gets under the pond liner

Step 6: Soil Time

Picture of Soil Time

Finally moving onto installing the growing stuff!

1. Lay out the bark on the roof - this is another layer of damp goodness to stop the soil drying out too much (when buying the bark make sure its not chemically treated to stop weeds etc, as this will not be good for the plants!
2. Once you've got a good covering of bark start to put the compost up. Easiest way I found was to put it into 5 piles then gently (making sure not to move the bark etc) rake it around
3. Do the same thing with the top soil
4. Give it a gently bit of turning to mix it up a bit
5. Get stomping, you want the soil to be reasonably firm - not fluffy and light 
6. Final thing to do is put some paving slabs up - this is for two reasons, 1 - so you can walk around without treading on your plants, 2 - so you can put a ladder on the roof to get to the higher one if needed - otherwise you'll put the ladder on your living roof and may damage the liners etc

Step 7: Planting

Picture of Planting

We visited the local garden shop and picked up a selection of plants that are hardy (see the bottom of the post for details).

Before planting I placed the plants around to get a feling for the spacing.
Once the spacing was right then dig a hole and bed them in.

Plants we bought:
Name / Notes
* Chamomile - Has spread ok
* Houstonia Caerulea - Has spread ok
* Sedum Hispanicum Glaucum - Brilliant, looks great, spread really well
* Sedumm Reflexum - Brilliant, looks great, spread really well
* Thymus Serpyllum Minimus - Favourite, really dense coverage, very pretty
* Scabiosa (Misty Butterflies) - dont like, looks a bit weedy now
* Acaena Saccaticupula (Blue Haze) - Didnt last too long
* Cotula Hispida - Didnt last too long
* Dianthus Deltoides (Acctic Fire) - looks lovely, but hasnt spread that well

All of the plants have now been in for well over a year, sedum really is the way to go. 

When planting keep them in sensible patches and let them spread

Step 8: Final Thoughts and End Result

Picture of Final Thoughts and End Result

Now that this has been installed for well over a year I've got some conclusions:

1. It works - woop!
2. You do need to weed it during the spreading process (ie while the plants you want are filling the gaps in) - I've done this 3 times this year, doesnt take more than 10 minutes
3. You do need to water it - as I'm lazy I've installed an irrigation system (cost £17 on ebay), this connects to an outside tap, turn it on for 30 mins every few days or so when its very sunny - this could run off a rain water supply if you wanted.
4. Some plants take far better than others - I've started to move around the plants that work to get a better spread. By next year I want the whole thing as wild/maintenance free as possible
5. We've had bees - which is great!

Let me know how you get on


Summerska (author)2014-07-25

I have built a shed from scratch (to fit in a garden space that a usual sized shed wouldn't fit - 3450mm x 950mm) and I am installing a DIY green roof. It is sloping and I am finding difficulty to source a way of trapping the water - any ideas please?

Jake Opstad (author)Summerska2017-11-06

Have you looked into coconut pith/cocopeat? It's supposed to be excellent at holding moisture. It might help you do what you want.

Jake Opstad (author)2017-11-06

It's my dream to make a green roof for my house in near-equatorial
Brazil. People really need to know about this sort of thing here!
Passive/natural/evaporative cooling is still such an unknown here.

afshinbakeri (author)2016-05-21

Hi, it very nice looks.

Extend it...

Roof Vents (author)2015-12-31

Wish there were more of these around, it looks awesome.

NathanielM14 (author)2015-11-26

Great job. Love the layering. Soon you'll be weed-free!

Lorenzowy (author)2015-11-18

how much did this cost you in total?

billytkid (author)Lorenzowy2015-11-19

It was a long time ago, but probably £2k if you phase in the extra engineering in the roof

mseoane24 (author)2015-10-01

Awesome instructable! now I just need to find somewhere to try it :D

praveen.upadhyay (author)2014-11-12

Hey thats great job! Can you tell me the break up of the cost that is needed for different stuff needed for the same.

wawalalal (author)2013-09-03

thanx for the information i like the practical experiments and be happy with your garden ^___^

carolbtx (author)2013-08-20

Love it! How long is it since you made the living roof? How are the plants progressing? We are (one day) going to extend and rebuild our back porch (verandah enclosed with screen material to keep out Texas-sized insect life). I would love to make a living roof there, as it faces east, and catches the sun until mid-afternoon. I grew up in Norfolk with the stable roof covered with yellow stone crop, and have dreamt of something similar ever since. Do you live in Islington?

odelll (author)2013-02-26

Wonderful project. This would be very good on porch roofs. Not surprised that the sedums did well. Very good instructions. Thank you.

kdimock (author)2011-10-03

do you think this would be an option for a chicken coop roof? i think that would be awesome if it was.

billytkid (author)kdimock2011-10-04

Absolutely, as long as its strong enough

Gordyh (author)2011-10-01

Cool roof. But being from Minnesota ,USA where winter temps can get to -30f. I have to ask how cold it gets there, that you feel you don't need the insulation? My roof is insulated to R50.

For the moisture blanket (I think you called it) you could have recycled some old used carpeting. The synthetic fibers won't rot away, and anybody that has had a water leak knows how much water carpet can hold ;-)

billytkid (author)Gordyh2011-10-02

Hi Gordyh,

it gets pretty cold here these days with snow for a few weeks at least.

The reason for not needing it is because the garden itself is such a good insulator. The local government officer could not work out the BTU figure for the living roof so insisted on the additional protection that he was able to calculate for.

Below the garden is the 2inch thick foam, then a roof void which is also stuffed with fibre glass. In winter its nice and toasty :)

JakeBlanton (author)2011-09-30

Just plant you some kudzu, your roof will be green in no time...

mdavez (author)2011-09-30

Looks more or less like every other felt roof after a few years.
Only joking, well done, I am sure it will look great in a few years!

RyanKim (author)2011-09-30

....That roof is SUPER strong!! I was just wondering if it could be paved over so you could park your SUV on it? Bahhahahhahha!!!
(this was a joke) (I love bees, my Aunt was a bee-I miss her)

billytkid (author)RyanKim2011-09-30


catherinetina (author)2011-09-30

You should also be well aware of the plants that you want to be there on your roof. Some flowering plants like zinnias, roses, button roses, and some kind of creepers would look good on your roof. Especially if you are planning for a loft conversion, make sure you plan a roof top garden so that you can feel the aura of the flora from the outside too..I suggest having some flowering plants on the roof rather than just greenery will do the magic!!

billytkid (author)catherinetina2011-09-30

Hi catherinetia,

thanks for the comment! I did think about a number of alternative plants for the roof however as the substrate is pretty thin (because of the weight) and also it needs to be as maintenance free as possible (ie no weeding, no turning, no compost ) which was the reason we went with more rocky/hardy plants.

Creepers would look cool but would likely start to invade the building, this is why there are stones around the edge to really keep the garden in its place



wbucket (author)2011-09-29

Here's a simple way to green your roof. ;) For info.

GENERALCHAOS (author)2011-09-29

i like this it awsome view from out the window

cfm (author)2011-09-29

Nice design. Have you any idea how much weight load it adds per square meter with the soil saturated by rain? The steel beams make me wonder.

billytkid (author)cfm2011-09-29


I budgeted for twice the dead load for rain and also snow, that was why the original beams were doubled and bolted together to make sure it was super super strong!

The wood and time was pretty cheap so I went overkill for safteys sake

syoung68 (author)2011-09-29

This is crazy, but I was in London in July and I saw your house and thought it was the coolest thing ever. Well done.

billytkid (author)syoung682011-09-29

Great stuff, were you in one of the flats behind?

tripseven (author)2011-09-29

I am so happy to see this!! I'm glad that you're aware of the bees too. Thank you for making more green space. We need all we can get!

There are likely some local wildflower seed varieties you might be able to obtain from your local nursery. If not, hop online and find a seed share and connect with them for local, indigenous seeds.

mikeasaurus (author)2011-09-25

Great documentation and good job mentioning the roof construction and growing medium, very detailed!

petercmfjohn (author)2011-09-25

Very good idea, It should be beautiful if can make a green roof while making the loft conversion

l8nite (author)2011-09-24

great build and well done "ible" thank you for sharing

ChrysN (author)2011-09-24

Awesome, I love the idea of a green roof. It looks great.

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