LIKE MUCH OF AMERICA, MARYLAND IS GOING "green," with green houses, green schools and green libraries. But a green gas station? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?
Even as customers fuel their gas guzzlers, a new BP station near downtown Baltimore aims, through its design, to be more friendly to nature.
From the road, the gas station looks deceptively conventional -- with six pumps, a convenience store and a car wash. What sets it apart is that the store and the car wash have "living roofs": soil and vegetation that keep rainwater from running into storm drains and ultimately into Baltimore's harbor, carrying the pollutants and toxins of the city with it.
The BP station opened this spring at 1465 Key Highway, the first business on the road's $13.8 million, quarter-mile extension deeper into Locust Point. Its owners say it's the first BP station in the United States to feature living roofs, and one of the first gas stations associated with any company to do so.
With more than 1,000 stations east of the Rockies and a slogan of "Beyond Petroleum," BP promotes itself as a leader in renewable and clean energy production. It's one of the largest producers of solar energy systems worldwide and an investor in wind farms in the U.S. and other countries.
But the idea of building a green gas station in Baltimore came from the local owner, Eastern Petroleum of Annapolis, and its chairman, J. Kent McNew.
Founded in 1969, Eastern sells motor fuels to more than 200 gas stations and marinas throughout the Baltimore-Washington area. McNew is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the South River Federation, two organizations with a record of environmental activism.
McNew said he thought the Key Highway station, close to Baltimore's harbor and along a prominent approach to downtown, would be an ideal spot to set an example. "If we don't all do something for the environment," he says, "we're all in trouble."
The gas station occupies slightly more than an acre along Key Highway. The two green roofs cover 5,500 square feet of space, or about one-eighth of the total ground surface.
A simple system
The station was designed by Morris and Ritchie Associates of Abingdon, with masonry walls for the enclosed structures and BP's green and yellow graphics throughout. For the eco-friendly aspects of the project, McNew turned to Michael Furbish of Furbish Co., an expert in green roofs and other forms of "sustainable building."
Furbish devised a way to cover the two roofs with sedum plants and other materials that absorb rainwater, so less runs onto the pavement below than with non-living roofs.
Furbish spread 3 to 5 inches of "engineered soil," also called "growth media," over the conventional membrane roofs. He then seeded the soil with plants that become the living roofs, including Sedum album, Sedum kamtschaticum, Sedum reflexum, Sedum sexangulare and Sedum spurium 'Fuldaglut.'
The plants grow 4 to 8 inches tall and reach maturity after a year or so. Furbish said he has had to weed the roofs and water them during dry spells, as with a start-up lawn, but eventually they won't need much tending other than an occasional pruning. The living roofs cost about $42,000, out of a total budget of $3 million.
"It's a pretty simple system," Furbish said. "The irony of many environmentally-friendly design solutions is that they're low technology, not high technology. There's an elegant simplicity to so many aspects of green building."
According to city planners and others, the main benefit of this vegetated cover is that it provides "on-site storm water management." That means the roofs, once mature, will absorb about 65 percent of the rainwater that otherwise would run into storm drains. The water that is discharged from the roof does so slowly over an extended period, helping to cut down on storm drain surges that can harm marine life in the harbor.
Living roofs also help insulate buildings, reducing heating and cooling loads; extend the life of the roof membrane, which is not exposed to the weather; create habitats for birds; help improve air quality by giving off oxygen; and help break up the "heat island" effect in urban areas -- the retention of heat by manmade materials such as concrete and asphalt.
Saving 'offset fees'
But construction of the living roofs is not an entirely altruistic gesture. Baltimore and Maryland have regulations that encourage businesses to contain rainwater on their properties, rather than allowing it to run off-site. If they can't keep the water on their own land, owners must pay "offset fees" to the municipality that has to filter and treat what runs into storm drains. By creating living roofs that keep more water on site, Eastern Petroleum doesn't have to pay offset fees. The amount saved, in turn, helps pay to install the vegetated roofs.
City officials endorse the initiative as environmentally sound.
"Green roofs definitely make a difference, and not just because of storm-water runoff," said Beth Strommen, environmental planning supervisor for Baltimore's planning department. "We hope it becomes more common, rather than the exception. If BP did this at every gas station it builds, it would make a huge impact. And then if Exxon did it, it would be even better."
A month after the roofs' installation, the plants are just beginning to take hold. But the general public has no way of knowing about this. Because the buildings have parapets taller than the sedum plants will be, people won't see them from the ground. The only way to see the green roofs, other than by helicopter, is from the upper levels of rowhouses just east of the property.
It's unfortunate that the roofs aren't more visible, from the standpoint of promoting awareness of eco-friendly design. The green roof on the Mikulski Workforce Development Center at the Living Classrooms Foundation's campus near Fells Point is sloped, so people can see the plants from the street. As a result, it has considerable value as a teaching tool. Furbish said the gas station eventually will mount a display to explain how living roofs work.
BP and Eastern take several other steps to protect the environment and save energy. The car wash recycles water, like many do these days. Lighting is energy-efficient. In some of its stations, Eastern has installed "flush free" urinals -- receptacles that don't use water -- but not on Key Highway.
There are other missed opportunities. Designers could have done more to incorporate building materials that don't deplete natural resources. The station could sell alternative fuels.
The green approach didn't extend to the biggest roof on the property, either. The canopy above the gas pumps, BP's standard lightweight metal frame, wasn't redesigned to support soil and plants. As a result, rainwater still runs off of it and onto the pavement below.
In the scheme of things, the rainwater absorbed by the two living roofs is a drop in the bucket, compared with the amount that ought to be collected. Maryland needs hundreds of efforts such as this.
Still, BP and Eastern Petroleum have done more than most gas station operators to raise awareness and turn ideas into reality. In the process, they've demonstrated that just about anyone can be more friendly to the environment -- even in the most unlikely places.