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INNOVATION: Going to the Mat

author: Janet Davies

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Welcome to our business-innovation column, showcasing creative entrepreneurs across the region who are bringing fresh energy to the local economy technology 

HILLIER'S HIGH-TECH GREEN ROOF COMPANY is growing as fast as its sedums.

For centuries, goats have grazed on little rooftop meadows while occupants below stayed warm or cool. Today we call them green roofs and there’s increasing demand for this passive yet powerful form of insulation and rain absorption. Greg Yuristy, whose company Smart Green Technologies is thriving in Prince Edward County, aims to revolutionize Canada’s green roof industry by making production faster, more efficient and cheaper.

“Our carrier mats are made of organic coconut fibres, not plastic, which is the norm. They’re organic and sustainable and biodegradable, so the fibres nourish the living roof as they break down” CURT MOELLER

Using technology he helped develop at the University of Guelph, Greg produces super lightweight vegetated mats composed of tough, lush, multicoloured sedums – those drought-tolerant staples of gardens. The mats have slashed growing time by 80% and can be laid on a roof as easily as laying carpet tiles. “A green roof is one of those rare technologies that offers different benefits, depending on what clients want,” says Greg, who has himself adopted the titles of Founder, Inventor and President of Smart Green. He laughs, “I am really proud of our 100% Ontario-born product. It’s good for the environment, simple and affordable. And the more places we can put vegetation, the better.”

Smart Green’s hydroponic system uses 70% less water and 50% less fertilizer than conventional growing methods. The 8’x20’ mats are delivered in rolls light enough for one person to carry, weighing in at 4 oz. per square foot. If you’ve ever picked up a small roll of traditional turf you’ll appreciate why that’s exciting.

Greg based his company in Prince Edward County after finding used hoop greenhouses for sale on Kijiji of all places. “In February 2013 we went to look at these old abandoned greenhouses on a farm for sale near Wellington. There was snow up to our waists,” he recalls, “but we were glad we went. We ended up buying the whole farm.” He and his partners now have 200,000 ft² of indoor growing space for their radical mats, as well as acres of land for the mother beds that produce the cuttings and seeds that go into the mats. “Our carrier mats are made of organic coconut fibres, not plastic, which is the norm,” adds sales manager Curt Moeller. “They’re organic and sustainable and biodegradable, so the fibres nourish the living roof as they break down.”

In 2016, Smart Green launched a second genius product that provides all the elements needed to grow a green roof packed into lightweight, substrate blocks. The blocks can be laid like bricks on almost any structure, including steep-sloped roofs. These are products that work with nature and are created from nature – not just the sedums, but the recycled zebra and quagga mussel shells in the blocks, too. The company’s eco-friendliness also extends to drawing irrigation water straight from the lake on their waterfront property to avoid any strain on local systems.

“We get four or five growing cycles a year, which is great use of the land,” says Greg. “Sedums are extremely tolerant to drought and high temperatures and are super resilient.” He uses 30 species indigenous to cold climates. They grow thick and strong, typically to four or five inches, with some showy specimens reaching 12 inches. “We have dozens of colours, and clients usually request Anything But Green,” he says. “We do patterns and designs, even logos” – a selling point since most of his clients so far are companies in and around Toronto.

A 2009 Toronto bylaw states that any new building over 2,000 m² must have a green roof, and that’s not about aesthetics or even insulation. It’s about the sewers. Toronto and many other North American cities have combined sewer systems where toilet water and rainwater go through the same treatment facility. Those systems just can’t cope in peak rainfall times and billions of gallons of raw sewage end up in the Great Lakes each year. Vegetated roofs – unobtrusive, silent and natural – absorb enough of the extreme rainfall to buy time for struggling systems.

“The City of Toronto offers an incentive of $7/ft² to install a green roof, which goes a long way to covering the cost of our installation,” says Greg. (Installation costs depend on the project, but generally range from $10-$20/ft² – sometimes higher for complex projects.) “Unfortunately, not many people know about the funding, so the money just sits there. I want to change that.” When asked for a ballpark cost for an average house, Curt says, “Honestly, every roof is unique, but we do it all from waterproofing and insulation to colour design and provide a firm, upfront price. There are no hidden costs.”

In 2015, Prince Edward County’s green roof “factory” produced 100,000 ft² of vegetated mats and they’re ramping up production of substrate blocks. Does the technology compete for roof space with solar panels? Not at all. “Vegetated roofs actively complement solar panels by moderating the temperature,” says Greg. He explains how brutal 30°C-plus summer days make it hot as hell up on a roof, and solar panels don’t work well in those conditions. Having cool, leathery sedums under the solar panels moderates the surrounding temperature to optimum levels to produce maximum power. Research shows green roofs can actually increase solar panel efficiency by up to 25%.

As his team of engineers, scientists, students and visionaries grows, along with their production, Greg is employing more local people, too. It’s an exciting and encouraging home-grown green industry. Read more about it at smartgreentechnologies.com.

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