Constructed ceilings

The sky is a nice ceiling: It's time-tested, colorful, attractive, durable, and made from local materials; it goes well with nearly any architectural style; and it's free. Still, sometimes the sky isn't quite what you want in an overhead structure. It doesn't keep out the sun or rain, and it doesn't modify the microclimate. And it also doesn't give you that cozy, snuggly feeling of being sheltered by a room-height ceiling. That's when you turn to the alternatives.

Attractive sustainable overhead structures can be made of salvaged wood, driftwood, tree branches, canvas, or metal (the latter is especially good in high fire hazard areas). Unlike trees, constructed ceilings require some skill to design and build, and usually they're subject to building codes to make them safe.

One type of constructed ceiling is sometimes called a pergola (see Figure 12-2). A pergola may be just what you need to provide shade while at the same time letting in air and light.

Take into consideration the following factors when pondering whether to include a constructed ceiling in your plans:

  • Be sure you really need one. A very cool or foggy climate calls for openness to let light and heat in, not a shade-casting overhead.
  • Choose a rainproof roof if you live in a wet climate or enjoy being outside during wet weather. Remember that fully-roofed structures have to be built to withstand wind; check with a builder or landscape architect for details.
  • Determine how much shade you want. The density of the structure can result in anywhere from 10 to 100 percent shade. If you use parallel louvers to cast shade, place them perpendicular to the rays of the sun. Take the path of the sun into account when placing your structure, and don't forget to estimate where the sun will be at different times of the year. Well-cast shade can make the patio and house more comfortable and can save energy.
  • Set the height of your ceiling so that it's in scale with surrounding elements and creates the feeling you want. Tall ceilings feel open; low ones, cozy.
  • Don't paint overhead structures. Painting costs money and uses resources. Worst of all, repainting is a huge pain when the time comes, especially if you have to remove a covering of mature vines first. Penetrating stains are okay; so is natural unfinished wood.
  • If you want a vine on your overhead, choose well. Most vines carry a lot of dead stuff beneath them; choose something that looks good from below. Make sure that the vine won't drop litter on your dinner. Use a deciduous vine if you want the sunlight to penetrate in winter. Try edible vines such as grapes to get more use out of the structure.

Check local zoning ordinances to be sure you don't put an overhead structure in a location on your property where it isn't permitted, and ask whether you need a building permit for your structure.

Patio Overhead Structures
Courtesy of Butte Fence, Inc.

Living ceilings: Trees

What's more sustainable, durable, or beautiful than a tree? Name another overhead that creates oxygen, sequesters carbon, cools by evaporation, operates by solar power, costs practically nothing, provides habitat for birds and other organisms, lasts for centuries, is fun to climb, and makes flowers and fruit.

Plant trees around your patio or other hardscape elements to provide shade, or construct your deck or patio underneath existing trees for immediate results.

Avoid messy or weak-wooded trees, ones that might blow over, and certainly ones with root systems that lift pavement. As with all plantings, be sure that the tree you choose is adapted to your climate, soil, and other conditions, and place it carefully so that it casts shade where you want it. Take size into account.

Deciduous trees (ones that lose their leaves in winter) automatically provide shade during summer and allow sunlight to penetrate in winter — one of the most considerate things about trees. Evergreen trees can make a good overhead, too, as long as you can use the shade all year.

The living ecoroof

One of the coolest sustainable landscape elements is the living ecoroof, also known as the green roof (see Figure 12-3). Made of drought-tolerant plants growing in a shallow layer of lightweight soil held in place by a waterproof membrane and supporting structure, or planted in individual recycled plastic bins, the ecoroof turns your roof into a beautiful living ecosystem. Ecoroofs are showing up all over the place, from tiny sheds covered in succulents to the world's largest (more than 10 acres) covering a Ford Motor Co. plant in Michigan. Tax credits are available for ecoroofs in some places.

Ecoroofs offer a number of environmental advantages in addition to their special quirky charm. They

  • Absorb rainwater and pollutants, keeping it off the streets
  • Produce oxygen and sequester carbon
  • Cool the climate both inside and out
  • Increase the life of the roof
  • Produce food as well as ornamental plants
  • Create beautiful living surfaces

Figure 12-3:

An example of an ecoroof.

Figure 12-3:

An example of an ecoroof.

Courtesy of Bryan Gaier mng/

Courtesy of Bryan Gaier

Before you go dragging a bunch of plants up to your roof, here are some important considerations:

  • Ecoroofs aren't do-it-yourself projects. Hire an expert to help you.
  • Ecoroofs are heavy, so first you need to be sure that your house can handle the extra weight. A structural engineer can help. Don't scrimp on this step, because nothing will spoil your day like a squashed house, especially if you're in it. If significant strengthening is required to support the ecoroof, it may be beyond a reasonable budget.
  • Ecoroofs can slide off if they aren't properly anchored. A slide-off isn't quite as bad as a squashed house, but it's still no picnic.
  • You, too, can slide off your roof, especially if you step back to admire your work or trip on a pumpkin vine.

Ecoroofs are pricey and challenging, but they offer great benefits to you and the environment. Besides, what's more fun than having the neighbors decide that you're definitely insane? To decide whether an ecoroof is for you, and to find qualified ecoroof professionals in your area, visit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (www.greenroofs.org) and Greenroofs .com (www. greenroofs.com).

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Organic Gardening

Organic Gardening

Gardening is also a great way to provide healthy food for you and your loved ones. When you buy produce from the store, it just isnt the same as presenting a salad to your family that came exclusively from your garden worked by your own two hands.

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