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YMCA Green Roof Unveiled

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Back in May, when the Metro Central YMCA announced they were planning a green roof to accompany other repairs, it was an idea that made sense: the rooftop running track was a flat, ugly expanse of hot concrete, and certainly not much to look at from the surrounding condo towers. Originally intended as a outdoor terrace for exercising and lounging, it barely served the purpose—it was much more comfortable to run on the air-conditioned interior track, and with nowhere to sit on the hard surface, the area didn’t lend itself to yoga classes, stretching, or even a nice place to read a book.
Today, the organization opened the new green roof, and while it isn’t going to actually be green for a while, it’s an appealing change, both for its creature comforts and environmental benefits.


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When planning the roof, the YMCA felt it important to solicit votes from its members on the three designs. Each of Natvik Ecological‘s renderings included a water feature and a series of planked paths, as well as a large platform area to be used for classes, recreation, or events. Upon reviewing suggestions from 2,500 members, the final selection was revised to make room for more trees and seating, as well as incorporating raised edging on the track to assist the visually impaired.
Building a green roof isn’t as easy as dumping a load of soil and planting some seeds, and it’s initially more expensive. The roof had to be reinforced to support the additional weight, and a barrier laid down so the concrete floor wouldn’t crack on account of plant roots. Special drainage boards run under the green roof to prevent pooling of excess moisture, and the vegetation grows not in soil, but in a loose-slate-based substrate that is designed to filter away water (as a result, the plants chosen have to have shallow roots, yet be hardy enough to withstand drought and damp conditions, as well as the change in seasons).
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Which brings us to the vegetation: right now, it’s dry and brown and sparse. YMCA members may even find the appearance of the green roof disappointing when comparing it to the rendering, but it won’t start really filling in until the spring. It also doesn’t yet have the weathered patina that will help it seem less synthetic, and though almost entirely finished, there were still people working on parts of the decking during our visit this afternoon.
Instead of wood decking, the choice was made to go with Trex planking, which is a composite of reclaimed sawdust and recycled plastic grocery bags. As well as being rot-resistant and unpainted, it wont send splinters or nails into the bare feet of any outdoor yoga class. Frustratingly, all of the materials had to be hand-carried up from the fourth floor during construction, since the service elevator doesn’t go to the roof (it is accessible for those with disabilities via a small elevator).
Much of the appeal arrives in the small details. The curbs of the track are made of recycled rubber, attractive stainless steel drainage plates, and most of the benches surround a three-fountain water feature. The large platform (which the YMCA calls the “studio”) is walled by sections of horizontal lattice, which provide partial shade and make it feel more like a dedicated room.

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A new solar heating system on the roof of the pool; a detail from Barbara Steinman’s leaf garden.


The designers also placed a single solar voltaic panel at the northwest corner, which only generates enough electricity to power the water feature and LED fixtures, but actually better serves to highlight the YMCA’s recent solar installations on the roof of their indoor pool (the enormous solar heating system above the pool doesn’t produce electricity; it warms the water).
Despite the blocky feel of the YMCA’s exterior, the green roof was a project that already seemed to fit well on the site. In 2002, artist Barbara Steinman was commissioned to create the fantastic wild garden at street level, which feels like a series of planters and fountains from the ground, but which resembles the stem and leaves of a huge plant from above.
Green roofs are still a rarity downtown, even though the City offers incentives to help offset up to $100,000 of retrofits. It’s mainly the costs that are hard for property managers and corporations to swallow. Notably, it’s actually entities like Mountain Equipment Co-op, Jackman Public School, Ryerson University, and 401 Richmond that are leading the way as far as Toronto green roofs go. Now, the Metro Central YMCA can be added to that showcase, but with the refinement of the technology and subsequent lowering of costs, we had hoped Toronto would be further along by now.
All photos by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

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