Sedum rolls to be installed on the roof of a five-story condo complex.- Courtesy of Eric Hefty
Workers survey the rooftop of a five-story condo complex to determine where to place sedum rolls.- Courtesy of Eric Hefty
Workers install sedum mats on the roof of a five-story condo complex in Missoula, Mont.- Courtesy of Eric Hefty
A close up of the plants covering the roof of a condo complex in Montana.- Courtesy of Eric Hefty
Sedum rolls cover the roof of a five-story condo complex in Montana.- Courtesy of Eric Hefty
A living roof atop a five-story condo complex in Missoula, Mont.- Courtesy of Eric Hefty
Living roofs rise in popularity
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Kai Ryssdal: If you are environmentally minded, you're already plugged into the virtues of energy efficiency. It'll help control global warming and save the planet. It helps cut down on utility bills and saves you money. And in its more unusual forms, it helps farmers find new markets for their crops. From Montana Public Radio, Kevin Maki has more.
KEVIN MAKI: Nate Lengacher turns a valve on an irrigation system and begins watering an acre of sedums and other succulents he's growing in Montana's Bitterroot Valley.
Lengacher is growing 14 different kinds, and his crop is awash in color.
NATE Lengacher: Ruddy oranges and reds. Lots of greens and slight blue-green hints as well.
But Lengacher's plants aren't meant to be decorative. They're destined for a new condominium complex in nearby Missoula where they'll cover the roof.
Lengacher: This product I would put in the true green category.
So-called living roofs are becoming increasingly popular with developers looking to save energy. They provide natural insulation -- reducing the need for air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter.
Lengacher: We growing it out here on traditional ag land. It's nice to bring a little alternative ag to the Bitterroot.
Lengacher contracted with a company called Xero Flor to sell his living roof. Over the past eight years, the company has put up nearly 50 of them across the country.
BRIAN Mosley: We actually partner with our farms, and it's not unlike a co-op. We agree with the farmer in advance. We tell him the price that he will sell his crop to us for before he plants.
Brian Mosley heads the company's Western operations. He's in Montana overseeing the harvest and installation of four roofs, including the one for the condos in Missoula.
Lengacher's succulents grow in thick colonies on carpet-like mats. He cuts them into sections with a masonry saw. He then rolls them up like rugs for transport.
Lengacher: The trick is to make sure this front edge is tucked nice and tight... Ahhh.
It's hard work. Each section weighs about 85 pounds.
Lengacher is one of six farmers across the U.S. whom Xero Flor contracts with. With demand for living roofs on the rise, Mosley says the company's looking for new farmers.
Mosley: Business is growing year after year. Next year we anticipate to be so busy we're gonna have to bring on more folks and expand Nate's crop for example and our other farmers will be expanding.
That's good news for Lengacher. He's got a lot riding on this venture.
Lengacher: Most of the equity in my house to pay for the initial investment and all the materials, the field grading and setup, the tractor and other equipment.
Lengacher and Mosley fire up a rented moving truck full of sedum rolls. Their destination? The town of Missoula, 30 miles up the road.
Architect and developer Eric Hefty stands on top of the five-story condo complex Lengacher's plants will cover. He sees a living roof as a natural choice for a building constructed with recycled lumber and steel.
ERIC Hefty: I'd probably like to do this on every project I do if I can.
Hefty paid around $35,000 more than he would have paid for a conventional roof. He watches as a crane hoists the sedum mats onto the roof. Lengacher measures one roll to figure out the best place to put it.
Lengacher: Looks like 41 inches.
He and a couple hired hands then wrestle the mat into place.
Lengacher: We gotta come back this way. First mat down.
Hefty is struck by the transformation.
Hefty: I can't believe all the colors in it. It's got greens and browns and rusts and grays. It's just amazing. I love it.
By the end of the day, Lengacher's mats span the roof from end to end. He stops to admire the work with Hefty.
Lengacher: This project will get me close to paying off my tractor and paying my loan through the winter, so it's a big deal going into the winter.
Hefty: I need to borrow your tractor in a couple of weeks.
To perk up the plants after their travels, Lengacher takes a hose and gives the living roof a good, deep drink before winter covers it under a blanket of snow.
In Missoula, Mont., I'm Kevin Maki for Marketplace.