The ESRI Canada head office looks like any other tower along the busiest commuter route in Toronto: nine storeys encased by banks of shiny glass windows.
But way up above the Don Valley Parkway, on the eighth floor roof, a green oasis awaits staff, complete with a herb garden, shrubs, grasses, an outdoor boardroom and plenty of space to sit.
The roof at the ERSI Canada office wasn’t always a lush garden space. When the geographic information systems software company moved into new digs – two floors of a shared office building north of downtown – its ninth floor space included an 8,000-square-foot deck paved in concrete tiles. It was accessible to staff, but not that appealing.
Company president Alex Miller saw big potential.
“We’re an environmental company,” Miller says, noting that ESRI stands for Environmental Systems Research Institute. “Our business is building geographic information systems for our customers. We wanted to set an example of what a company could do, for a relatively small amount of money overall, at improving the sustainability of our surrounding environment.”
ESRI doesn’t own the building. It’s a tenant. So, Miller worked with the landlord to install a temporary rooftop garden. Vegetation was pre-grown on trays three feet long, 18 inches wide and about six inches deep. Contractors installed the roof greenery over two weekends in spring 2009. If ESRI moves to another building, it can pack up, green roof and all.
Green roofs are gaining popularity in Toronto, where the city provides green roof grants, largely because the vegetation helps manage rainwater runoff, taking some of the burden off aging sewer systems. This roof, and others like it, also helps mitigate the urban heat island effect, where cities are often hotter than the rural areas surrounding them because of all the concrete. As a bonus, green roofs insulate, and can cut down on heating and cooling costs.
At ESRI, the architect who designed the space used shrubbery, other plants and paving to mirror the internal office design. There’s even an outdoor boardroom surrounded by planters and shrubs that can be used for formal meetings, at least when the weather co-operates.
“You don’t want your paper blowing away, off the ninth floor,” Miller says. “We’re more likely to use it for lunches and things like that.”
As an added bonus, office workers who used to look out onto concrete have something a little more appealing to gaze at. Even in the winter, tall grasses poke out from under the snow.
“These tall Prairie grasses wave in the wind,” Miller says. “Even a little bit of wind makes them wave back and forth. As a result, you get a sense of what the weather is like outside. Not just the sun and the clouds, but you actually see the wind.”
The green roof isn’t the only environmental initiative at ESRI. Working with the landlord, ESRI is retrofitting the ballasts on the old light fixtures and has already cut electricity consumption by about 30 per cent. Server room overhauls aim to further reduce energy use.
There are big plans for the roof this summer, including two customer receptions. The company will also add more furniture and benches, allowing the staff of 200 to take full advantage of the space.
Check out this video ESRI made about their experience with their green roof.