Greg Yuristy is co-founder and general manager of Smart Green Technologies in Hillier, a company built on two novel pieces of technology that he helped develop at University of Guelph.
Greg believes his cutting-edge growing method, and a genius new product, will revolutionize vegetative roofs – aka green roofs – by making production faster, more efficient and cheaper. Smart Green vegetative mats are dramatically lighter than traditional ones and take one sixth of the time to grow. It’s Made-in-Ontario science, engineering and agriculture and it’s happening on Huycks Bay Road on what was once a sad, abandoned nursery.
After working on green roof research as a graduate student, Greg partnered with Tulloch Engineering and the U of G to form Smart Green Technologies with his father-in-law, engineer Andy Logan – a veteran of Ontario Power Generation with a keen interest in the environment. The first thing they needed was greenhouses.
Of all the places, it was Kijiji where Andy discovered low cost hoop greenhouses for sale in Prince Edward County. They made the trip to Hillier and met Bob Hunter, owner of several acres of old greenhouses that were once a White Rose Nursery facility. Greg recalls, “It was mid-February. We were cold and had snow up to our waists, but we saw all of this useful infrastructure. We got talking, and instead of just buying the greenhouses, we bought the whole place.” That was three years ago. Now they are firmly established with 33 greenhouses, 200,000 square feet of growing space and a thriving business producing, selling, installing and maintaining multi-coloured vegetative roofs.
“We applied for and got funding from PELA CFDC that was a tremendous help in getting started,” says Greg. “In 2015 we got Adoption of Technology funding. They were gracious to give us $10k to help improve our infrastructure for our new patented growing method. The place was in surprisingly good condition after being abandoned but there were a lot of upgrades to make. We used the grant primarily to install irrigation that can be computer-controlled from a cell phone.”
In 2016 they received another Adoption of Technology grant to bring the second leading edge piece of technology to The County – a product they call substrate blocks. These are neat, lightweight building blocks that contain all the elements needed to grow a vegetative roof on almost any kind of structure, including steeply sloped roofs. That’s radical.
“Right now we make them in a small facility in Guelph but we want to bring our operation under one roof here in Prince Edward County, because the location works so well for us. We found all our employees through the Prince Edward County Job Fair last year. With this second grant we can turn seasonal positions into full time positions, which is great because all the people we hired want to stay with us.”
WHAT IS THE TECHNOLOGY
The two break-through technologies that galvanized Greg to start Smart Green Technologies are those portable substrate blocks that can be quickly installed just about anywhere, and a hydroponic growing method that cuts production time from two years to about three months. “We can get four or five cycles a year which is very efficient use of our land,” says Greg. Better still, the 8 ft by 20 ft vegetative mats are light enough for one person to handle, unlike traditional sod rolls.
Behind the greenhouses are big colourful beds of 30 different species of “mother plants,” from which they take seeds and cuttings. The team drops cuttings onto prepared beds in the greenhouses where they dig in and flourish.
“Sedums are used because of their extreme tolerance to drought and high temperatures,” says Greg.
“They are super resilient and grow in shallow soil. Our mother plants grow out in the open, exposed to all the elements including frost, and there is very little die back.” He uses species indigenous to cold climates in North America and Northern Europe that grow thick and strong, usually to four or five inches high but some reach 12 inches.
“We have dozens of colours to draw from. Clients often request ‘anything but green’ and we can create patterns, custom designs, even company logos,” he says. That’s marketing.
DEMAND FOR GREEN ROOFS
Toronto has a bylaw mandating all new builds over 2000 sq meters must have a vegetative roof. It’s not about the insulation or aesthetics. It’s about the sewage. Toronto and many other North American cities have combined sewer systems – meaning toilet water and rainwater goes through the same treatment facility – and those systems cannot cope in peak rainfall times. When they are overburdened, billions of gallons of raw sewage are deposited into the Great Lakes each year. Vegetative roofs absorb rainfall to delay and buy time for the struggling systems.
“The City of Toronto has an incentive program that offers $75 per square metre to install a green roof. That goes a long way to covering the cost of our installations,” says Greg.
“But people are so unaware of the program, the city is just sitting on the funds. We want to help change that.”
Smart Green Technologies expect to generate 80,000 lbs of cuttings this year. In 2015 they produced 100,000 sq ft of vegetative roof mats that are rolled up like sod to be shipped. Work is going well on expanding the substrate block production.
“The sky is the limit for us to expand,” says Greg. “We want to let people know about this 100% Ontario-born product that is good for the environment, efficient, simple and affordable. We’re not in competition with solar panels for roof space. Vegetative roofs complement solar panels. This brutal summer is a great example of how they can work together. With all those 30-degree-plus days, imagine what it’s like up on the roof. Temperatures that high reduce the efficiency of solar panels, but having vegetation under the panels moderates the surrounding temperature to an optimum level to produce the most power.” For most solar panels that’s about 25 degrees Celsius. Early research shows that green roofs can increase solar panel efficiency by up to 25%. That’s significant!
Green roofs can boost insulation, but Greg says most modern houses are pretty well insulated already. What is more exciting is the prospect of fighting the Urban Heat Island Effect. A Ryerson University study found that if enough people deployed green roofs in an urban environment like Toronto, you could lower the annual average temperature of the entire city by 1 or 2 degrees.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if millions of people can reduce their demand on air conditioning by one or two degrees it shows,” says Greg. Then he laughs. “You know the difference just one or two degrees makes when you come to Wellington!” The lakeside town that’s fondly known as the Coolest Spot when the Weather’s Hot.
“Why did we choose Prince Edward County? I like to think it chose us. It all started with Andy and the Kijiji ad. He lives in Madoc so he knew this region, but I hadn’t been to The County before 2013. It’s very different to Guelph where my wife Samantha and I lived before. I like it a lot. We have everything we need here. And we have a 9-month old son, so being able to raise him in this friendly, small rural community was definitely part of the attraction of Prince Edward County for us.”
The entrepreneurial, horticultural engineer-scientist father-of-one and employer of a growing workforce is looking forward to the future – and helping to build it – right here in Prince Edward County.
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