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You can see the stars from the tower that tops Stuart and Margaret Walker's Lake Bluff home.
"We call it the office," said Stuart Walker, "but really, it's a lot more than that."
It's like the "tree house the 10-year-old in me always wanted," Stuart said of the 11-by-17-foot tower room crowning the two-level addition that gives great views, acts as a sleeping porch in the summer and a getaway from the buzz of the rest of the house.
Architect Jim Fraerman, principal of Fraerman Associates Architects in Highland Park, said the tower, which has close to two dozen windows and skylights and was added at the same time he remodeled the Walkers' home to add a second-floor master suite, was designed to bring "lots of light and fresh air inside."
Topping houses with elements that merge style with sustainable functionality is a growing practice among architects. Green roofs absorb water and heat, while offering unexpected garden vistas. Ventilation and light towers create a stack effect for natural air flow and daylight. And solar panels, solar roof shingles and wind turbines that provide renewable power, are being shaped to fit rooftops in a way that's aesthetically pleasing.
The lakeside home owned by William and Eleanor Revelle in Evanston is covered with roof shingles that are embedded with photovoltaic cells. Unless inspected closely, they look, well ... like roof shingles. "A lot of people object to the looks of solar panels," said William Revelle. "This is a solution to that."
The Revelles' house has a 16-by-16-foot room that projects out of the roof. "We call it a belvedere," William Revelle said. "It's an old Midwestern term that was used in the 1800s describing a roof-topping room used to provide natural flow of air through the house."
Hot air moves up and out the belvedere and fresh air flows in ground-floor windows, allowing the Revelles to cool their home with a limited use of air conditioning. The slightly-pitched roof provides extra space for more solar shingles. "We needed as much south facing roof for the solar shingles, as we could get," he said.
The combination of photovoltaic-cell shingles with solar water-heating panels that are mounted along the driveway provide 80 percent of the Revelles' total energy needs.
For Dave and Carol Klobucar of Evanston, good air flow was one of the design objectives for the green summer home they had architect Nate Kipnis, build them in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. The curved roofs are intersected by a ventilation tower. Clerestory windows at the top can open and close by remote control, letting hot air out and light in.
The curve of the ceiling softens the light, and, the shape of the roof also echoes the look of a Midwestern barn, "which helped the home blend in this area, even though it was ultra-modern," said Dave Klobucar.
Kipnis, whose homes include a variety of natural ventilation methods, said roofs are an opportunity for these, but also for daylighting, solar energy and green roofs. "Thirty years ago, the roof was all about keeping water and the elements out. Now it's about so much more," said Kipnis, principal of Nathan Kipnis Architects in Evanston.
Some of the most dramatic Chicago-area rooftop expressions of good-looking sustainability, are still being completed. Two examples are the Michael and Bonnie Rothman house, and the Michael Yannell residence.
Once completed, the North Side home that architect Dirk Denison is building for the Rothmans will have four roofs, each planted by landscape architect Doug Hoerr with an array of greenery -- from sedum and other decorative rock plants on roof areas that won't be seen, to a native Midwestern grasses and flowers, and a grove of Aspen trees on rooftop areas the Rothmans will use.
"Occupied spaces in the home are like cubes of glass, pushed and pulled out of the structure, openable toward the green roofs," said Denison.
Avid scuba divers who have seen the effects of global warming up close, the Rothmans said they wanted to do everything they could to make their home sustainable. Doing the research, the Rothmans learned that green roofs could reduce the urban "heat island" effect caused by so many heat-absorbent roofs.
"For us, green roofs were a no brainer," said Michael Rothman. "They reduce heating and cooling costs, give us greater play space for the kids, prevent water runoff from being diverted to the city sewers, and improve the view -- for us, and for the neighborhood."
Michael Yannell said two primary objectives for the home Chicago architecture firm Farr Associates is building him in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood, were to harvest rainwater, and to support a solar power system large enough to meet goals of zero-net-energy usage.
Unusual roofs will do both. Floating "V" shaped roofs that top Yannell's two-building home were pitched to gather rainwater for landscaping. Rainwater naturally flows to the center of the roof and into a downspout fed into a cistern. The wing-like roof configuration allowed Farr to tuck solar panels out of view.
"Solar panels were not the aesthetic we were after," said April Hughes, an associate at Farr and project manager for the Yannell house. "Integrating them the way we did allowed us to more attractively merge the form of the building with the required function of onsite generation of power."
Although homes with these types of features can be multimillion dollar ventures, affordable single-family housing is also emerging with similar elements. Matt Nardella, principal architect with Moss Design is building the first of several homes he plans in the low-$200,000s that will include a ventilating stair tower and green roof. Gabled at the front, the roof slopes down to a flat, green roof. The windowed stair tower extends above the roof about five feet. Above the windows, roof overhangs help shade windows when the sun is high in the sky.
While architects say many of these techniques have been around for years, citing examples such as Middle Eastern courtyards with cooling towers, Native American teepees and tall Yemenite Jewish houses -- merging and modernizing these ideas on rooftops with new sustainable techniques is a renaissance of the best kind.
"I find the best architectural solutions are the ones that solve multiple problems at the same time," said Nardella.
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Creating an oasis of green in asphalt jungle
As more urban homeowners look for ways to green their personal corner of the asphalt jungle, green residential rooftops are a growing trend. Covering house or garage tops with plants slows movement of water into city sewer systems and helps lessen the urban heat island effect, lowering heating and cooling costs.
Green roofs also soften and beautify harsh landscapes, and can act as sound barriers to city clatter.
Doug Hoerr, of Chicago's HoerrSchaudt Landscape Architects offers points to consider if you're thinking about a garden in the sky:
The best time to get a green roof is when building a new home or replacing the roof on an existing structure. Retrofitting later to provide more load-bearing capacity can be very costly.
Figuring out what load bearing capacity is necessary to support a green roof depends on what kind of green roof you hope to grow.
Roofs not meant to be accessed by home dwellers can be fitted with shallow, tray systems planted with sedum and other rock-garden type vegetation, requiring a load capacity of only 15 to 30 pounds per square foot. But if you want to walk through the garden, and hope to plant a wider array of native plants and perennials, you'll need deeper planting medium and a load capacity of 150 pounds per square foot or more. Trees can actually be grown on roofs but require at least three feet of growing medium and a load capacity of 300 pounds per square foot.
Hoerr says green roofs are like young children, requiring more tender loving care their first year, a bit less their second or third.
-- Monica Kass Rogers
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Natural resources For more information on green roofs and green roof plants visit: