Molly Meyer is democratizing the green roof.
80% of the buildings that will exist in a few decades from now are already built. And since buildings are one of the biggest contributors to climate change, figuring out how to retrofit them economically and easily is a must do. Green roofs are a big part of that. Molly wants to put a green roof within the reach of anyone who owns a building.
She’s tackling this through engineering incredibly lightweight soil and systematically training contractors in how to use it. Her company, Omni Ecosystems, in Chicago, is growing, evidence of the demand.
Molly’s interest in green roofs developed in Germany, where she spent two years working in the green roof industry on a Robert Bosch Fellowship after completing her degree in Earth Systems at Stanford. She founded Omni Ecosystems in 2009 where she works to advance technology associated with working landscapes in order to create rooftop gardens (and other types of working landscapes) that are functional, biodiverse, environmentally friendly, and fiscally beneficial. The company is multidisciplinary and comprised of five branches: OmniInnovation (research and development), OmniProducts (product development), OmniWorkshop (design studio), OmniConstruction (installs living infrastructure systems), and OmniStewardship (provides care for long term landscape management). They don’t just build green roofs – they invent, design, supply, construct, and maintain working landscapes.
In 2019 Omni Ecosystems headquarters relocated to the Bowman Dairy Company’s State Street facility in Chicago, rehabilitating the neglected into a design studio with a 30 ft palm tree, construction yard and manufacturing warehouse, and a rooftop showcase with a 15,000 sq ft green roof including 32 trees. Omni Ecosystems has patented a number of innovative solutions to improve their products including the Omni Tapestry and the Omni Green Roof and have received numerous awards for their visionary products and Molly has received more for her visionary leadership.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:11] I thought I’d kick off the New Year with an inspirational conversation I had with Molly Meyer last year. Molly is the founder of Omni Systems. She’s developed a brand-new approach to greening roofs. She’s engineered an incredibly light-weight soil that weighs just 12.5% of your average garden soil, making it possible to easily grow trees on rooftops. Why is this so important? 80% of the buildings that will exist in a few decades from now are already built. And since buildings are one of the biggest contributors to climate change, figuring out how to retrofit them economically and easily is a must do. Green roofs are a big part of that. Molly wants to put a green roof within the reach of anyone who owns a building. I was blown away.
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Eve: [00:01:38] Molly Meyer is democratizing the green roof. Why, you ask? 80% of the buildings that will exist in a few decades from now are already built. And since buildings are one of the biggest contributors to climate change, figuring out how to retrofit them economically and easily is a must do. Green roofs are a really big part of that. Molly wants to put a green roof within the reach of anyone who owns a building. She’s tackling this through engineering incredibly lightweight soil and systematically training contractors in how to use it. Her company, Omni Systems in Chicago, is growing, evidence of the demand. I was fascinated and hope you will be to listen in. If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, please share this podcast. Or go to RethinkRealEstate.Co and describe to be the first to hear what we’re cooking up next. Hi, Molly. It’s really nice to have you on my show today.
Molly Meyer: [00:01:41] It’s so nice to be here. Thank you, Eve.
Eve: [00:01:44] You’ve built an amazing company I heard about called Omni Ecosystems with a vision to democratize the Green Roof. So tell me about that. What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve?
Molly: [00:01:57] Yeah, so, well, green roofs are one aspect of it, but when we’re thinking about putting landscapes on structure, weight is a serious concern. So making sure that green roofs, or that the ecosystems that we put on structure aren’t too heavy. And so we’ve invented a new type of growing media or engineered green media, which colloquially we call soil, but it’s very, very lightweight. And so typical soil, like in someone’s front yard, would weigh under a lawn. To grow that lawn would be about 120 pounds per square foot. And typical green roof systems will grow along in about 80 pounds a square foot. We’ve grown lawns in 15.
Molly: [00:02:48] Oh Wow.
Molly: [00:02:50] Orders of magnitude lighter weight.
Eve: [00:02:52] Wow. Wow, wow.
Molly: [00:02:54] And so why is this important? You know, this is one aspect of what we do, which is broadly, broadly what we do is how do we integrate nature into the built environment. But why is this aspect of it important is because when we look at the building stock that’s going to exist in 2040, I might have this stat wrong, but I believe it’s almost 80% of the building stock is already built. Right. And that’s huge. So, and when we know that the built environment contributes at least 40% to greenhouse gas emissions, then that makes it very clear that there’s a huge imperative to retrofit and to adapt our existing structures to be more, to be able to mitigate and adapt to climate change. So when we think of overhauling the auto industry or transportation, if the administration were to put forth a new sort of emissions standards for auto manufacturers, that would turn over about 10 to 15 years. So, we’d know, okay, in 2037, by 2037, here in 2022, those new standards will be in effect. And we know we’ll see the benefits of these better emission standards. But that’s still only, what, a quarter or a third of emissions. There’s still almost half comes from buildings. So, we really do need to be thinking now about what retrofits look like. And while there’s a lot that contributes towards how a building can be greener, I think one really important part is integrating nature into it. So, creating greenery in, on and around buildings.
Eve: [00:04:49] Interesting. Just as an example, I don’t know, maybe about five years ago, I live in a little downtown building which has a flat roof with a stair to it. And I wanted to put a, I wanted to put a green roof on it. And everyone said, no, no, no, no, you won’t have the structure. You’ll have to get a structural engineer, etc., etc. But, you know, I was thinking some lovely little perennial. It’s a tiny little area. It’s maybe 20 by 20. But I thought, you know, something that would be low maintenance in the sun, up there, would give us a little less cooling needs inside since we’re on the top floor. So, when you go to retrofit a building, did you look at existing structure to understand what sort of weight it could carry? Like if joists carry a roof, what extra can they carry?
Molly: [00:05:37] Sure. Yeah. So, we don’t have structural engineers on staff. We, you know, a developer or a building owner would hire them as another consultant within the team. And it’s really important to have a structural engineer to evaluate the building so that we can ensure that it can hold even a lighter load to put the system on. But when our soil scientist invented this new type of growing media, the very first projects they looked at were incredibly limited loads. There used to be in Chicago, a small grocer called True Nature Foods, and True Nature wanted to grow food on their own rooftop and their joists, the structural engineers said their joist would only support an additional 12 pounds per square foot. So, insanely light, and no one had ever grown food in this capacity. But the soil scientists that that we work with, Michael Rabkin, he invented our soils. This was back in 2004, 2005 time period when he was faced with this question. He said that was the first project that they were trying to tackle, and he really developed a process to do this. And it’s all based on the concepts of terraforming. Terraforming is how do you grow soil? So, soil grows in nature, right? Rocks break down biological materials like microbes and earthworms and whatnot, grow in on and around them and organic matter builds up over time. So, you have a profile of biogeochemical processes happening. It’s where geology and biology meet, is what soils really are. And so, to grow soils is really to ask how do we introduce biological organisms to the geosphere in a way that we can make sure plants can thrive?
Molly: [00:07:44] And so, Michael, his work prior to omni ecosystems was with the U.S. Military asking how would we grow food on Mars? How would we grow food? Yeah, in otherwise unable to be grown upon areas. And so, if you were to watch the movie The Martian with Mike, it’s painful because he just goes, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how it works.” Apologies to Matt Damon, but the genesis of the soils at Omni Ecosystem differ significantly from how other providers within this industry ask: How do you grow on structure? How do you grow in lightweight? Because their approach is very much from an engineering or mechanical mindset. Let’s look at the geology and the chemistry of it. So, making sure that there’s certain rock substrate and then there’s a certain amount of NPK, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients. Whereas our approach is we can grow on any geologic substrate because we can add the appropriate biology in order to turn that rock into soil. And so, what we’ve done is we’ve just used a very, very lightweight rock and we grow within it, we turn it into soil on a rooftop. And so, our processes really mimic the ideas of ecological succession. So, when a forest fire goes through an area and decimates a forest, over the course of the next five decades, you will see a forest regrow there. And there’s these ecological steps that occur in growing back a forest. We take those biological processes, and we accelerate them. We put all the ingredients together so that nature can do what happens in after forest fire in five decades. We do it in 12 weeks on a rooftop.
Eve: [00:09:53] Wow. So, it’s actually on the roof. These were not the questions I was going to ask you. I’m fascinated. I know I like it. So, it’s actually a process that you implement on the rooftop.
Molly: [00:10:08] It is, yes. You know, we grow soil from bare rocks. So, on day one, the rooftop looks the worst that it will. And over time, it grows. And so, the most cost effective version of this is actually one of the most cost effective versions of greening rooftops anywhere on a market. It’s less expensive than other sort of monoculture systems. We’ve created a native wildflower meadow that can work anywhere in the Midwest and East up and down the Eastern Seaboard to really mimic nature, to create native habitats.
Eve: [00:10:27] Fascinating, how fascinating, and do different weights of soil give you the ability to grow different things?
Molly: [00:10:51] Weight, not so much depth. Yes. So, the deeper we would go with a soil profile, different plants can survive. So, there are a few misconceptions, however. Many plants don’t actually have tap roots or roots that need to go straight down. Most plants can adapt, and their roots can go sideways. So, lawns, native wildflower meadows, those can all exist in the shallowest three inches. When we try to create forests or tree canopy on roofs, then we do go to a deeper profile because typically our clients want to have mature trees on the roof. And so, we have to cover fully their root balls or their rooting mass with soil. And so, we might have to go up to a two foot depth, but it’s still very lightweight. For example, on our own headquarters, the building where I’m speaking to you today. We created a rooftop with a very structured Bosque, so a series of 15 maple trees in one area. There’s over 30 trees on the roof, but 15 maple trees in one area that, through the use of this lightweight soil, through the use of just optimizing just the right depths that need to be there. And, through the use of air spading, which is a process by which you remove excess soil from the root of a tree. Those things, we’ve allowed us to put this forest on the roof in 60 pounds per square foot. To do this with any other technology, or approach, would weigh 240.
Eve: [00:12:31] Wow.
Molly: [00:12:32] Yeah.
Eve: [00:12:33] When can I come and visit?
Molly: [00:12:34] Any time. Eve, come any time.
Eve: [00:12:36] It sounds really amazing. You’re sort of in the process of making your vision to democratize green roofs into reality. And just tell me a little bit about your company and when it launched and what products and services you offer.
Molly: [00:12:53] Yeah, absolutely. So, we started the company about 13 and a half years ago, in January of 2009. Great time to start a company in the real estate industry. If you remember, I’m being sarcastic. It was.
Eve: [00:13:08] Did she get a loan for a building then?
Molly: [00:13:11] Not so much. But we started the company then here in Chicago because there was quite a robust green roof industry here in Chicago. Thanks to Mayor Daley, his administration put forth a sustainable development policy that was the core of which was around green roofs. So, there was a great market here and we brought our products and services, which at first were really just green roofs. And so, we started with this lightweight soil, bringing it to market. And over time, we found that clients were asking us for more and more services in addition to the products, because it’s a unique approach. It’s not what most landscapers would do and how they would approach creating green space. And so over time, we added a construction arm and a maintenance arm and a design studio. Today, the core of our business is really around supplying our, the soils that we’ve invented and designing landscapes that do more than just look pretty but actively work to adapt and mitigate the climate change. We do still offer some of those construction maintenance services, but it’s less of the focus of the firm. And really what we’re trying to do is get these soils out to other contractors so that they can implement them because we realize there’s too much work to be done for us to try to become a big behemoth contractor. We really want to educate other contractors because our skill set is in inventing and understanding soils. And then our other core is designing with this advanced technology in mind.
Molly: [00:14:59] So through our design studio, we’ve really been able to push the industry forward in thinking about what can be done on structure and within landscape. So the rooftop that I mentioned before in the building I’m in where we have a quarter of the weight of a typical approach, that’s the first time that’s ever been done, and it’s in the staid and risk averse real estate architecture and construction industries. It’s unique to push forward that much through a client. So, our own design practice can push those boundaries and then lead the way for other designers to implement or to apply those to other projects. But another example of sort of work that we do now is not just on structure but on grade. So, one of the soils that we’ve created actually has an enormous amount of pore space. So typical soils have about 25% pore space, which means like air space or where air or water could be held within the geologic substrate. And our stormwater soil has 78 to 91% pore space.
Eve: [00:16:09] Interesting.
Molly: [00:16:10] Over three times the amount of space for water to be held. And this is really important because this becomes then a stormwater management tool using innovative soils. Projects where we are applying this are particularly in urban infill sites where there’s environmental contamination. So, when you have environmental contamination and you’re doing new construction, you often need to dig out that contaminated soil, haul it off somewhere, make it somebody else’s problem to dispose of. But hauling that off in order to create space for cisterns or underground vaults to manage your stormwater.
Molly: [00:16:49] So what we’ve been able to do is say we can cap the existing site, which is a typical approach to environmental remediation, to put a engineered barrier on a site and leave the contamination in situ. And then on top of that, we’re able to put this super spongy soil and it basically behaves like a green roof on ground. But in doing this, the soil, the contamination remains in place to minimize the amount of negative impact that might occur due to that contamination moving. We’re able to bring in this clean soil that manages the stormwater without digging down, and we’re able to often exceed the stormwater requirements of a site. So doing all of this in a couple of sites that we’ve studied and are implementing this on, we have found up to a 35% cost savings when you compare the grey infrastructure approach to the green infrastructure, meaning if you were to look at the environmental, civil and the landscape budgets together of the typical grey infrastructure solution, meaning with cisterns and hauling off contaminated soil, it would be 35% more expensive than just capping the site and putting a super spongy soil on. And the other benefit is that for that less money, we’re getting a more robust landscape.
Eve: [00:18:20] Yeah, and that sounds amazing.
Molly: [00:18:22] So bigger trees. Yeah. Yeah.
Eve: [00:18:25] So do you find that it’s useful where you have really poor soil, like solid clay or it’s really. I suppose you could treat that as contamination too, right?
Molly: [00:18:34] Yes, you could. Absolutely.
Eve: [00:19:37] Because there’s no water runoff. It’s just like a brick wall.
Molly: [00:18:40] Right.
Speaker1: [00:18:41] Just thinking here.
Molly: [00:18:43] Yeah.
Eve: [00:18:44] We’ve lost a lot of retail and there’s lots of strip malls with tons of parking that are standing empty. And I wonder all the time what they’re going to become. Can you just cover over asphalt or concrete?
Molly: [00:19:57] We can, yeah.
Eve: [00:19:59] Have you done that yet?
Molly: [00:19:00] We have actually, a version of that.
Eve: [00:19:04] Turn the mall, the local mall into a park with tiny little retail outlets around the hitch. I think I might go buy one.
Molly: [00:19:13] We absolutely can.
Eve: [00:19:14] That’s really interesting.
Molly: [00:19:19] Yeah. And we have yeah, we’ve put the soil on just straight on asphalt and concrete caps and very shallow, and we can grow plants out of it.
Eve: [00:19:26] Because, you know, that does a couple of things that first of all, it changes the nature of the space. And secondly, the demolition costs and hauling that material and putting it in landfill is just an awful thing to do, you know? So really, really interesting.
Molly: [00:19:42] Yeah. The carbon footprint, I think can particularly as developers start to consider and quantify better the carbon expenditure that they have with each of the decisions they make, it may become very cost effective because of the ability to offset all those hauling the carbon of all that hauling. Yeah.
Eve: [00:20:05] So where are you offering your products and services now? Just Chicago or have you gone national.
Molly: [00:20:11] We’re national. We do this work coast to coast. We have projects now in Phoenix and California, Minneapolis, Atlanta, DC, New York, Connecticut.
Eve: [00:20:26] Not outside the country?
Molly: [00:20:27] Well, we do have a very first couple of projects in the Grand Cayman this year. Everyone on our team is saying, I have to go to that project for site visit. And so, it’s very competitive to us and staff members there for a site visit. But right now, really solidly work within the continental United States. And we’re excited that we have a couple of opportunities to expand beyond that right now.
Eve: [00:20:51] Well, I have a project I’m working on and trying to get built in Australia and we could use that technology there. And the architect I’m working with would be fascinated by this. I mean, they have lighter soils there, but really nothing, nothing like this.
Molly: [00:21:06] Yeah.
Eve: [00:21:07] Are you getting towards your vision to democratize the green roof? How far do you have to go?
Molly: [00:21:12] Oh, we have a long way to go. Well, I think we are making headway, but this is a big endeavor. And it’s not just about us. It’s about everybody contributing to it. We definitely have a couple of decades more of work to do.
Eve: [00:21:26] Who are your customers?
Molly: [00:21:27] Yeah, good question. So, our customers are, for our landscape architecture studio, we are often either directly contracted by architects or ownership, depending on how a certain contract might be structured. For our products, we sell those to other contractors. So, roofers, landscapers and periodically general contractors who do work.
Eve: [00:21:55] So if I wanted to find someone in southwestern Pennsylvania, could I go to your site and see who you sold to?
Molly: [00:22:02] Oh, yeah. You know what? I don’t know if we have a list on the site for Southwest Pennsylvania, but, yeah, we have folks I can connect you with.
Eve: [00:22:11] Okay. Do you touch on who’s on your team? You’ve got a research division. Like what does your team look like to start a company and grow a company like this?
Molly: [00:22:21] Yeah, we have a very diverse team with quite a broad set of skill sets. So, we do have a soil scientist and, as well as a team of, I think about ten landscape architects and a couple of architects. We also have construction project managers. Obviously, HR and accounting and then we have horticulturalists.
Eve: [00:22:50] So your typical stuff.
Molly: [00:22:51] I started the company where I was wearing all the hats, you know somebody had to drive a forklift. It was me, right? If somebody had to pull weeds, it was me. Over time, we’ve grown, and we’ve really gone from a group of generalists who are willing to do anything to now, over the last few years, really having a group of specialists who bring expertise from their prior work. So, we have a director of operations now who comes to us after a career as an owner’s rep. So, she really understands the breadth of the industry and how to interact with our typical clients and how our team should be operating. Yeah, so a really, quite a diverse group of people. But what’s peculiar about our group and what we do is that we need this breadth, to enable to go deep in what we do, right? Because what we do is so unique, but it has to slot in across the industry from design and construction, also through stewardship, through the whole timeline, and be able to speak to each of the stakeholders which are obviously very diverse within the AC industry.
Eve: [00:24:04] And what’s the range and scale of projects?
Molly: [00:24:07] Oh yeah, we have very large projects which can be acres in size, like the Morton Salt Project where we’re applying our soils on grade to manage contamination and stormwater on that site. It’s a four-acre site and other projects are even larger. And then we have a contest among our sales team for the smallest project. And I think right now it’s about 26 square feet. But if you have anything smaller than that, they will be fighting tooth and nail to sell it to you.
Eve: [00:24:43] 26 square feet, that’s a little room.
Molly: [00:24:44] Yeah, exactly.
Eve: [00:24:25] No. So a little tiny little courtyard. Like a little urban courtyard somewhere. Tiny, weenie, little one.
Molly: [00:24:49] Yeah. That might have even been a set of planters, but yeah. But, more or less, our average project tends to be, I don’t know, between a half-acre and an acre of size.
Eve: [00:25:02] Residential, residential, commercial. Do you have residential customers who come to you?
Molly: [00:25:12] We do have residential customers that come to us. Our typical clients, however, are commercial and institutional. So, over the past ten years, much of our work has been commercial developers who are looking to green amenity deck space for their tenants. And we’re finding quite an increase in that after the pandemic, as people are thinking about how do we lure our folks back to the office? And green space is really critical, and adapting existing structures is very critical. And that’s obviously a sweet spot for us. Through the pandemic, many of our projects continued that were commercial, but we have seen quite an uptick in institutional work, health care and higher ed. Those portfolios for us are really increasing significantly. And then we do residential. Yeah, we do it and we enjoy it. But really, I think we’re a commercial outfit, so we kind of work with commercial clients.
Eve: [00:26:06] Interesting. Just to wrap this part of the conversation up, just tell me about one of your favorite projects that you worked on that was really very impactful.
Molly: [00:26:14] Sure. Well, we were lucky to build and supply and continue to maintain the green roof on Studio Gang Architects headquarters here in Chicago. And that was a really fun project for many reasons. Obviously, to get to work with Studio Gang is an honor, but also because of what we actually did on that project. So, they were looking at an existing building. I’m not remembering the vintage, but that was probably before the 1930s. And so, there was a limitation on the structural load. I want to say it was around 22 pounds a square foot that we were limited to. You know, Studio Gang wanted to put a wildflower meadow on the roof, a native meadow, as well as some trees. So, we worked with the structural engineer to identify the columns over which we could place trees, and then the remaining area, we sort of sloped the topography of the soil to manage the weight, keep it low, and then seeded the roof with a native wildflower meadow. And this was really, really fun to do and to think about the species that were up there. But one of the challenges that came up was that the project was delayed and what should have been seeded in the spring was seeded in the fall and late enough in the year that we weren’t sure if the plants could establish and protect the soil from wind scour through the winter. So, we spoke with the Studio Gang and said, hey, look, we can seed with the meadow, with the native species, and they can cold stratify help establish in the spring. But through the winter we’re not entirely sure. So, what we’d like to suggest is seeding the roof with a cold hardy annual so it could establish in the fall, cover the roof through the winter, and then we can mow it back in the spring. Or it could die back because it’s an annual and then the perennial plants could establish.
Eve: [00:28:20] Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. It’s like a blanket.
Molly: [00:28:23] Right. A cozy blanket. So, we ended up seeding with winter wheat. And winter wheat, we thought, I think at the time this was the first time we did this. We were like, let’s just throw a lot of wheat on this roof because we’ve got to make sure it stays in place. So, when we came back in the spring, it was a wheat field across this rooftop. It was so dense. And so, we asked, can we leave it up here rather than mow it? What do you think about just seeing what happens? And they were game. And so, we let it mature and in July we took some samples, sent them to a lab, and they were cleared for, basically there are certain type of fungus that can attack wheat and then it can be dangerous to humans if you were to consume it, but it came back clear on all this. So, we got a group of students together from a non-profit called After School Matters here in Chicago and One Summer Chicago, two different groups. But we worked with them to train them up. The students came to the rooftop with us. We harvested all the wheat. Well, actually, we harvested about 3000 square feet because it was a lot of work. So, we just did about 3000 square feet of this roof because Studio Gang wanted us to harvest with scissors so that we wouldn’t damage the underlying perennials that were coming up.
Eve: [00:29:51] That’s a lot of work.
Molly: [00:29:51] It was so much work. So, the students and we, like everybody, like our staff was out there or the students and we all were out there with a pair of scissors doing this. We brought the harvest back to our headquarters at the time. Another group of students helped us winnow, separating the chaff from the grain, and they came up with all different ways to do this. They took boards and beat the boards together to break up the seed heads. They took a bucket and filled it up and put a chain in there on a drill and beat apart the wheat. And then they took fans and blew the chaff away from the grain. So, like all this stuff, and over the course of three weeks they processed all of this wheat and we had 66 pounds of grain and a local artisanal miller milled it into a high grade pastry flour. And we had over 60 pounds of flour, which then a local baker worked with the students to bake it into cookies that they sold to raise money for After School Matters and One Summer Chicago.
Eve: [00:30:59] That’s really a lovely story. That’s a lot work.
Molly: [00:31:02] It was so much work, so much work. But it did really pay off because a few things came of that. One is the students were hilarious and incredible and so much fun to work with. And one of the students was like an aspiring stand-up comedian, and he put a whole bit together about like how insane it is where cookies and bread come from, which was awesome. And then at the time, the mayor of Chicago was Rahm Emanuel, and he came to our headquarters to celebrate their graduation from this non-profit, this student summer program that they were in. And there were 30,000 kids across Chicago that were in this program, and about 30 of them were here, were with us. And he came to their graduation, and he was supposed to be at our office for like 30 minutes. He spent almost 2 hours just hanging out with the kids. It was so cool. They gave him a pound of flour. And then, you know, Studio Gang’s rooftop ended up winning an award for this project. And today it’s a native wildflower meadow. So, after that first season, the story.
Eve: [00:32:18] They didn’t keep the wheat? Because wheat is beautiful.
Molly: [00:32:20] It is. It really is. But they wanted the native wildflower meadow and so they let it go back to that. And every year now they do a BioBlitz where they bring out a group of biologists and study like what are the species they’re seeing and what’s happening on the roof. So, it’s interesting to see that this is a space, a very urban space. It’s right at the intersections of Ashland in Milwaukee, in Chicago. It’s a very dense intersection, but three floors up, all this ecology has happened in the past five or six years. You know, it’s pretty impactful.
Eve: [00:32:57] It’s pretty fabulous.
Molly: [00:33:18] And then we also learned something very cool, which I love the data behind what we find out on each project. So, here’s a project where it’s about 5000 square feet. We harvested 3000 square feet of wheat and we got 66 pounds of flour. So, what we know now is that for every 50 square feet of a green roof, you could have 1 pound of flour grown. And this is important when we think about how do we scale this up, right? So across the city of Chicago, we worked with Perkins and Will to actually study how many square feet of green roof could ever be built and learned that from each of these data points of all of our projects, that little bits like how much, how much stormwater on this project, how much we do on this project and whatnot. We learned that, you know, if every year you harvested wheat on all the, all the eligible rooftops in Chicago for green roofs you could get, what’s the number of pounds? It’s almost 10 million pounds of flour and that of grain. And that grain could turn into nearly 50 million bottles of beer a year. That is pretty dang cool.
Eve: [00:35:38] Well, so I have two more questions for you. Clearly, you’re really passionate about this. How did you come to it? What’s your background?
Molly: [00:35:09] Oh, yeah, I know enough to get myself really in trouble. So, I studied Earth Systems for my undergraduate degree and my graduate degree. So, I got an undergrad and a master’s from Stanford in Earth Systems. And my focus there was within geology and narrowly within geology, I took a lot of soils and biogeochemistry classes, but I really just knew enough to get myself in trouble. I didn’t. I’m not a soil scientist. After my master’s degree, I ended up going to work for a general contractor as a carpenter for a couple of years just to do something different and be, I wanted to be up in Seattle where I could ski and climb every weekend, and after a few years of that, kind of wanted to go back into working in the environment but thought about, I was so interested in construction and how the built environment was, operates, but I really love soils and a couple of conversations some friends said, what about green roofs? So, I got a fellowship to work in Germany and learned how they build green roofs over there.
Eve: [00:36:23] It’s the country of green,
Molly: [00:36:25] Right, yeah.
Eve: [00:36:26] I mean, they separate out all their recycling. You can’t put glass bottles in except for certain hours because it might disturb the neighbors. I mean, they are so organized.
Molly: [00:36:37] Yeah, yeah, they are.
Eve: [00:36:40] Very precise. Yeah.
Molly: [00:36:41] Yeah. And so, I went over there, and I was there for about a year and a half learning, learning about the German green roof industry, which at the time really was far ahead of the United States. And so, I learned a lot there about green roofs, best practices, came back to the United States and just very fortuitously met Michael Repkin within that first few months of coming back, or being in Chicago. And it’s, his soil science background and me to know enough that he was speaking the truth, but not enough to be able to do it myself. We teamed up and really created Omni Ecosystems from that.
Eve: [00:37:20] How fabulous.
Molly: [00:37:21] Yeah. And over the past 13 years, in some ways we’ve leapfrogged what Germany did. You know, German green roofs remain very much about seeding, which is a monoculture and non-native to most of Europe and North America. In our work is, how can we go lightweight, how can we manage more stormwater, how can we become more biodiverse? But none of that would be possible without understanding what they developed in Germany and building upon it.
Eve: [00:37:48] Absolutely fascinating. So, what’s next for you? What’s next? There’s got to be something next brewing.
Molly: [00:37:55] Oh, boy. We always have little things brewing, but, you know, what we’re really excited about right now is scaling up the solutions we’ve created so that others can implement this. We recognize that we are on a very short timeline to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And the soils that we’ve invented and the design approach that we have has really kind of shown people, hey, there’s a path, it’s proven, this isn’t a pilot study anymore. We have this done and figured out. And so, what we’re working actively on right now is scaling and empowering others to use this technology. And that’s why I said earlier, our construction and maintenance teams are small and mighty, but really what they’re about is learning how these, our systems are best implemented and managed so that we can train others to do it. So, we’ve now built training programs. We have more than 50 contractors around the United States, either fully trained and implementing our systems or in the process of getting trained up. And that to us is really exciting because our hands can only do so much. But getting this technology to others.
Eve: [00:39:16] Now is exciting because I would want to know who they are. I mean, I hope you have a database.
Molly: [00:39:21] We do. And to your point earlier, it’s not on our website yet. But that’s part of the, part of our plan over the course of the next year is to build that up. And we want to make sure it’s just easy, easy for people to deploy this technology and use it.
Eve: [00:39:39] Well, this has been absolutely delightful. I’m in awe. How interesting.
Molly: [00:39:43] Thank you, Eve. It’s a treat to speak with you. And I do hope you’ll come visit sometime.
Eve: [00:39:47] I’m definitely going to. When this latest COVID wave settles down again, I’ll try and come to Chicago. I’d really love to see what you’re doing. Thank you so much.
Molly: [00:39:17] Thank you, Eve.
Eve: [00:39:24] That was Molly Meyer, founder of Omni Systems. She’s developed a brand new approach to greening roofs, an engineered soil that weighs just 15 pounds per square foot. That’s just 12.5% of your garden soil, which averages 120 pounds per square foot. And it’s not only meadows that she’s growing, but trees in her lightweight soil. I’m blown away.
Eve: [00:40:40] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. You can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing yourself head on over to wefunder.com/smallchange, where you can invest directly in Small Change and our mission to democratize capital formation to create impact in commercial real estate development. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Molly Meyer