When Michael Whitfield started Charleston-based Green Roof Outfitters in 2008, he was sailing in virtually unchartered waters in South Carolina and was among the vanguard in the Southeast.

And those seas were fairly rough.

“Nobody wanted to be the guinea pig,” says Whitfield, who actually changed his business model from being an installer to primarily providing green roof products. “In the first three years, I had zero projects here. In the last six months, we have either bid or installed on five.”

Among the local projects he has worked on is a green roof on the Rooftop Terrace of the SkyGarden Apartments, under construction now on Woolfe Street; a green wall inside the Half Mile North development; and a green roof atop The Refinery building at the 1600 Meeting Street development.

Whitfield is not the only one noticing a change in attitudes among architects, government officials and developers in the Palmetto State.

Green roofs and walls, especially in cities along the I-26 corridor, are starting to grow on government office buildings; high-end office, hotel and apartment structures; and schools and houses in recent years.

Green roof benefits

Also known as “living roofs,” green roofs are simply a vegetated covering for a roof. That covering has an array of benefits beyond aesthetics.

Green roofs reduce energy costs, especially during the heat of summer. They retain and detain storm water and increase the longevity of roofs by blocking ultraviolet rays and easing extreme surface temperatures. They also absorb pollutants.

The structures provide habitat for pollinators and birds and make space more suitable for humans.

Organizations pursuing prestigious LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accreditation can gain numerous credits through the use of green roofs.

Columbia’s pilot

As part of Columbia’s first effort to pursue a LEED silver certification on a municipal complex, Living Roofs Inc. of Asheville installed a green roof last month on a $15 million water distribution and wastewater management building.

Victoria Kramer, utilities communications manager, says it’s part of redeveloping a long-vacant auto dealership site that included the removal of more than two acres of asphalt for green space and installation of six rain gardens.

Meanwhile, the city isn’t the only major entity in Columbia with a green roof.

The University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, which has a LEED Platinum certification, had one installed three years ago, also by Living Roofs of Asheville. The 28,400-square-foot green roof is accessible by faculty and students and includes plazas and walkways.

David Lund, communications director for the school, describes the green roof as “becoming more robust and attractive” with each passing year.

“Our plants are thriving on our roof. As all of the plants on our green roof are native to South Carolina, we expected our green roof and rooftop garden to be sustainable as part of our green building efforts,” says Lund.

Lund adds that the business school is the second building at the University of South Carolina, which has 10 LEED-certified buildings, to feature a green roof. The university’s first one was the West Quad residence hall that opened in 2005.

Lund adds, “It may not be surprising to see another green roof on campus in the future.”

Not everywhere, yet

But the trend isn’t emerging in all parts of South Carolina, such as the Grand Strand.

Spann Roofing in Myrtle Beach, which has done business in Horry County for 50 years, lists green roofs as an option on its website, but that came a bit of a surprise to Project Manager Jimbo Spann. He has yet to get a request for one nor heard of any in the Horry County area.

“We have the capability of doing it (building a green roof) but haven’t,” says Spann. “We don’t see them in this area, but I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the cost.”

In the Pee Dee, though, high-profile green roofs were installed in recent years.

At the Moore Farm Botanical Garden, built by well-known financier and philanthropist Darla Moore in Lake City, green roof trial gardens were finished in May 2015. The goal of the research is to expand current green roof plant palettes for warmer zones of the Southeast, including zones 8 and 9.

The garden’s website noted that most of the initial green roof plants were adapted from other areas of the country with a more established industry, such as the Midwest and Northeast.

“Here, plants that perform well further north might not fare as well in our heat and humidity. We aspire not only to increase the palette, but also to increase creativity in design aesthetics — we feel the best roofs are varied in texture and contrast, with natives and exotics colliding in explosive displays.”

Three years before that trial, a green roof was installed atop J. L. McMillan Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in Florence.

Decade of perspective

Like many of the green roof projects across the state over the past decade, Living Roofs of Asheville designed and installed it. The business also has done residential projects on Kiawah Island, Johns Island and in Meggett.

Kathryn Blatt Ancaya, co-founder of Living Roofs Inc. of Asheville, says the markets for green roofs in North and South Carolina are “expanding at similar rates.”

“We have certainly noticed an increase in green roof projects. This stems not only from increased awareness, but also the recovery of the construction and development market in addition to an expansion of green roof education in the Southeast. It appears as though the trend will continue, at least in the immediate term,” says Ancaya.

Some cities, such as Raleigh, North Carolina, are helping with incentive programs designed to help ease stormwater runoff flooding and pollution. But the combination of economic and environmental benefits play a role in spurring both businesses and homeowner to take on a project.

“The good news for green roofs is that they make sense in such a broad host of categories,” Ancaya says.

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.