The Great Urban Outdoors

by Kacey Larsen

Thinking upward instead of outward for an outdoor living space requires a different design and building mindset, yet many of the desired features for an urban rooftop deck might actually be the same as those found in a more suburban outdoor living space. “There’s only so many places you can go, and in the city, the only place for us to go is up so it’s really leveraging that available space,” says Christopher Czachor, marketing manager, AZEK Building Products. “In an urban setting, there is absolutely a connection between trying to finish the rooftop of a garage and then also finishing the top of your home. That’s a very popular way of utilizing the space. Most anybody wants a garage over a little bit of extra green space, so people are still using that as an opportunity to create an outdoor living space.”

AZEK Building Products has been following the growth of urban roof-deck spaces since the company observed a good amount of interest in the use of its products for such applications, Czachor says. Because it’s made from a capped polymer, AZEK decking is resistant to rot, wear and water absorption; is lightweight; and its newest line features Armor Alloy Technology, which provides the product a Class A fire rating and includes a 30-year fade and stain warranty.

Foster Dale, AIA, principal, Foster Dale Architects based in Chicago, Illinois, echoes this interest in wood alternatives for roof deck applications. “We’re big advocates for composite decking because it’s low maintenance, you don’t get splinters, you don’t have to stain it, and I think most people don’t want to have to maintain the decking on their roof deck,” he says. “Composite decks, we think, is a really good direction. They cost a little bit more money, but when you think about the long term and return on investment, most of our clients agree it’s worth it to spend the extra money.”

Eric Adams, founding partner of Adams & Beasley Associates, Carlisle, Massachusetts, agrees that material choices should be selected and designed to weather the elements, especially when considering how expensive it can be to replace or repair materials in urban settings. In his experience, ambient pollution and air impurities can cause discoloration on natural materials, so ensuring the surface will be easy to powerwash or clean regardless of material selection is something the company tries to make as easy as possible.

Trex has taken note of the possible pollution and dust in urban environments as well as knowing planters and gardens are growing in popularity in rooftop settings, and perhaps because of such, the company has seen an influx in the use of dark colors of decking, especially with its Trex Transcend Tropical collection, which is variegated and hides dirt and dust more than a monochromatic color might. Another trend the company observes for urban rooftop applications is the use of a steel deck framing structure, like its Trex Elevations product. Senior Product Manager Mel Karlson says, “There is a fire consideration because it is a roof, and you could have burning embers from a neighboring structure in the event of a fire, so the first place they are going to hit is what used to be a roof and is now a deck. The contractor wants to check what local codes dictate because sometimes it’s a combination of subsurface and walking surface or decking.”

Roof-deck Spaces and the Steps to Create Them

Much like any other project, checking and planning for local building codes is all part of the design process, according to Adams. His company’s approach to a roof deck starts with a discovery phase that includes the client’s priorities and wish list, then a structural analysis of the existing roof and access point(s). Inspecting for structural integrity is a necessity, Adams explains, because structural reinforcement may be necessary when accounting for the additional load of materials, planters and live loads. Permitting can include looking at zoning, historical districts and condominium approvals. Aesthetics and materials, then, are the final piece.

Completed with Payne Collins Design, Inc., privacy from neighboring buildings was a big consideration yet the urban space needed to maintain its urban views. (Photo: Eric Adams)

Adams notes his company recommends redoing a roof if it is more than a few years old or if a renovation happens to be occurring simultaneously, which was the case with the roof-deck project (shown left). Done in conjunction with a gut remodel with Payne Collins Design, Inc., all the joists were sistered below the roof deck to accommodate additional weight. In order to create and maintain privacy for the urban space without compromising the views from the rooftop, a trellis, trees and planters were added. The clients, Adams says, wanted to see their space as a complete extension of their living space.

The initial design for this Boston roof-deck space had to be approved by the historical commission, and everything was assembled on-site. (Photo: Eric Adams)

While such urban roof decks are often designed with space at a premium, functionality—especially when it comes to season changes—cannot be forgotten. A client in Beacon Hill wanted a modern, “‘handmade” look for her roof deck space (shown right), so ipe planks in 22-foot lengths were craned up at full length so the deck could be assembled with no seaming or patching, no visible fasteners, and visual interest created through the varied widths of boards arranged in a pattern. The ipe and cast concrete countertop were selected to withstand the Boston weather, and the sail-like sunshade can be taken down in inclement weather or over the winter.

Also, Adams says that storage is often a priority because other space for items such as outdoor furniture may not be available. In this case, the built-in structure that conceals an elevator override structure also provides out-of-season storage, and a water spigot that can easily be accessed for gardening or cleaning.

Because he  sees clients with roof decks wanting to create their own “green oasis,” it may be worth speaking to a landscape designer to determine the optimal size for any trees or foliage that may be planned during the design phase. Adams points to craning up a medium-sized tree that could have a several-hundred-pound root ball, which can be very heavy on the roof and an example why this might be a helpful step.

Focus the View

Beyond weight considerations, Dale explains that another challenge of working on an urban roof deck is planning for and accommodating views. “You can oftentimes be up high and therefore get some pretty impressive views, but you also have some views that are not so impressive,” he says. “You really want to focus what people can see and sort of welcome the views that people are going to ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over, and try to restrict the views of the power lines, other adjacent roofs, the ugly infrastructure and the things that people aren’t going to be impressed by.

“A lot of what we do initially is try to understand in the context of the technical requirements of code—the structure and exiting—how we create really good outdoor rooms that capitalize on the best view possible,” he adds.

A vacation in Spain inspired Dale to create this “stepping” on the back of the Chicago home. (Credit: Foster Dale Architects, Inc. as architect.; Photography by Anthony May Photography)

One of Foster Dale Architects’ projects (shown left) was a renovation with a substantial addition that included the whole fourth floor and extending back the first floor to create “steps” of outdoor living on the back of the building. “I think there’s a difference between the kinds of private spaces you want to have off your master bedroom, and public spaces you allow your friends and/or people in a party setting to go,” Dale says. “It’s just like any other architectural design problem. You’re always trying to integrate spaces and allow people to experience good spaces in ways that enhance their lifestyle.”

Considering the sun and shading is one way Dale recommends enhancing a rooftop outdoor living space. He notes that having the ability to control how much sunlight comes in can be the difference in experience of such a space. Another way the sun can be a factor is when considering a garden space on a roof deck. “You can’t block that sun because then you won’t be able to grow anything,” he says. “It’s all part of the larger view of how one designs these kinds of projects.” Also part of the larger view was the project’s LEED for Homes certification. Dale notes that such a rooftop garden space can often count for a point or two toward LEED for Homes or other similar programs.

This Chicago roof deck furthers the idea of private vs. public outdoor spaces. (Credit: Foster Dale Architects, Inc. as architect.; Photography by Anthony May Photography)

Another way to incorporate green (shown right) is through a product called LiveRoof Hybrid Green Roofs products, which Dale incorporated into another Chicago roof deck space. Essentially they are a preplanted growing medium in small, shallow planters, and if local plants are incorporated, they don’t need to be irrigated. “It can really make it feel much more like you’re on the ground even when you’re in the sky,” Dale notes.

This is just one example of the “problem solving” the architect enjoys about working on roof-deck spaces. “I’ve been fascinated with these kinds of outdoor spaces, especially in the Chicago area, because our nice weather is so limited,” he says. “It’s architecture—it’s just architecture on top of a building.” QR

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