White Roofs Beat Green On Cost, Climate

If you run a business that’s all about the bottom line, and have a flat roof, you want it to be white. But here’s the real stunner: these white or “cool” roofs could even be the best choice for the planet, beating out celebrated green roofs on climate-change benefits.

That’s the conclusion of government researchers, who compared three major roof types – standard black; white; and green, aka living roofs.

white roof

A cool roof on a Walmart store in Las Vegas (image via Walmart)

The researchers did 50-year life-cycle cost analyses on nearly two dozen commercial flat roof projects. The green roofs got the advantage of an assumed 40-year service life, compared to 20 years for white and black roofs. Even so, green roofs were the most expensive. From the Berkeley Lab release:

The 50-year life-cycle cost analysis found that even the most inexpensive kind of green roof (with no public access and consisting of only sedum, or prairie grass) costs $7 per square foot more than black roofs over 50 years, while white roofs save $2 per square foot compared to black roofs. In other words, white roofs cost $9 per square foot less than green roofs over 50 years, or $0.30 per square foot each year.

roof comparison

The costs and benefits difference stack that has the highest net present value shows the roof type that is most cost-effective. Parentheses around dollar values indicate negative values. (image via Berkeley Lab)

But what about climate change? White roofs win there, too.

[U]nlike white roofs, green roofs do not offset climate change. White roofs are more reflective than green roofs, reflecting roughly three times more sunlight back into the atmosphere and therefore absorbing less sunlight at earth’s surface. By absorbing less sunlight than either green or black roofs, white roofs offset a portion of the warming effect from greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers do acknowledge that green roofs can have benefits that weren’t measured in their study, said to be the first to compare the economic costs and energy savings benefits of these three major roof types.

For example rooftop gardens provide stormwater management, an appreciable benefit in cities with sewage overflow issues, while helping to cool the roof’s surface as well as the air. Green roofs may also give building occupants the opportunity to enjoy green space where they live or work.

The Berkeley Lab study appears in the March 2014 issue of the journal Energy and Buildings. The abstract is available free online here.


Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply February 5, 2014


    Green roofs may also pull various VOC’s and Heavy Metals out of the air and prevent them from entering the water table. That could certainly have an economic impact over the course of 50 years if you consider healthcare costs in your analysis.
    That would be incredibly difficult to quantify though.

  • Reply February 27, 2014


    So, where do you get white roofing material for a single-family house? I looked at Lowes and Home Depot for white coatings for my 15-yr-old asphalt shingle roof, and they were about as expensive as getting a new roof. My next step is to look at re-roofing with white metal.

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