Under a roof of wildflowers

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The Independent Online
FORGET about slate, felt and boring old tiles - the roofing material of choice for the environmentally aware is made of soil, turf, extract of seaweed and a selection of wildflowers.

Nine self-built houses in a wooded valley near Brighton last week had 'living roofs' made of ox-eye daisy, scabious, bird's-foot trefoil and tufted vetch lifted into place. The roofs attempt to recreate the vanishing wildflower meadows of the Sussex downs.

A group of ecologically minded teachers, craftsmen and designers are building their own homes near a golf course at Hollingbury. Grass roofs, laid on a waterproof membrane, are more common in Germany and Scandinavia. They protect roofs from weathering, increase insulation, cleanse the atmosphere and add to the ecological value.

Jonathan Hines, a director of Architype Design Co-operative, the scheme's architects, said: 'The site is green and wooded, so the houses will just nestle into it. Neighbouring houses will look out on to a grassy wildflower bank instead of a dull roof. You also create a wildlife habitat to replace the area lost by construction.'

Architype was last week highly commended in the Green Building of the Year Award sponsored by the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association and the Independent on Sunday, for its design for the London Wildlife Trust visitor centre in Peckham, south London. The award went to Grove Road school, Hounslow, west London, designed by the Winchester architects Plincke Leaman and Browning.

According to Gary Grant, of Ecoschemes, which designed the roof, control of soil depth means the grass does not grow too long - although the aim is to recreate a natural 'shaggy' look. Seaweed-based compost helps to retain moisture: the roof does not need mowing and should regenerate itself if it dries.

Roofs represent 'enormous wasted opportunities for improving the quality of city life', according to Building Green, published last week by the London Ecology Unit. The book says cities have 'millions of square metres of unused and unattractive roofs' which could be improved by planting.

The houses at Brighton are timber-built, insulated with recycled newspaper and score 9.6 out of 10 on the National Home Energy Rating scheme: a house meeting current building regulations would score seven. They will cost pounds 23,000 to build and pounds 25- pounds 36 a week to rent.

(Photograph omitted)