Backyards and balconies are great places to enjoy an al fresco meal or a sun bath, but to really elevate your outdoor lifestyle, consider going up. To the roof.
Rooftop decks were fairly common in early 20th century Craftsman and modernist homes, particularly on the West Coast. More recently, the trend has moved to city cores, where ground-floor outdoor space is minimal.
A rooftop deck is nice if you're lucky enough to have expansive nature views — water, mountains, desert, forest. But it's also attractive to city dwellers keen to escape the confines of the concrete jungle without decamping to the wilderness. A vista of evening lights, with the city quite literally at one's feet, can be captivating, and add value to your home.
Urban rooftop decks might need to be screened from nearby buildings, or from unsightly elements like water towers or air-conditioning units. Laser-cut steel, wood or tempered glass do the job, and add a decorative element.
Los Angeles architect Dan Brunn has done several beach-adjacent rooftop projects. He cautions that seaside decks need good wind screening, and homeowners must be mindful of community height restrictions. Wind can also be a problem for outdoor grills, keeping them from heating up properly.
Use planters, pergolas and gazebos to define areas of a rooftop deck, Brunn says.
"The other great thing about a gazebo structure is that it can house heating elements and lighting," he says.
Pergolas provide some privacy and shade, too. Ipe is a popular wood because it's durable and insect-resistant.
Chicago Roof Deck & Garden, in the city's Bucktown/Lincoln Park neighborhood, has even made them out of reclaimed barn wood. "With the client, we developed a material palette that mimicked the contemporary, steel-and-beam loft feel of the interior," says company principal Adam Miller.
Everyone has a different use for outdoor space, so feel free to customize.
Miller recalls one beer-loving client who wanted his rooftop deck to feel like a bar.
"He had this great collection of growler jugs," recalls Miller. "So we built a growler wall on the west end of the deck. It picks up the late afternoon sun to give the space a really cool glow."
For a family with children, the company custom-built a hanging daybed and installed a hot tub on the roof.
Echoing the aesthetic of the home's interior can create a cohesive feel. Use a similar color palette in weather-resistant fabrics and paint, and incorporate design elements like industrial shelving or a comfy rattan sectional.
Miller says space and weight are two of the biggest challenges on rooftop decks. A kitchen, lounge space and dining area can be a lot to fit on a roof. And you can't use heavy pavers or counters.
He and his team have developed a lightweight concrete that holds up well to the Chicago climate.
Anthony Carrino, a builder in Jersey City, New Jersey, like to use engineered quartz products, like Dekton, for outdoor kitchens and entertainment counters, because it's durable.
"We're hit with every type of weather possible, from blizzards to summers with 100 degree heat," he says. "To have a product that looks just like natural stone and requires no maintenance is a dream when creating an outdoor kitchen."
For cabinetry, a Wallingford, Connecticut company Danver Outdoor Kitchens makes a powder-coated stainless steel line that can be ordered in a range of colors and finishes. Besides regular storage, you can use cabinets to house smokers, fridges and other outdoor appliances, for a streamlined look that mimics an indoor kitchen.
Dining and lounge furniture now resembles interior furniture more than ever. Look for big, comfy sectionals, cool bar stools, and finishes ranging from weathered wood looks to textural weaves and sleek modern silhouettes. For rooftops, look for heavy pieces that won't sail off on a windy day.
While ipe and other marine-grade woods make beautiful decking, a less costly flooring to consider is tile. Slate, granite, ceramic, plastic and simulated wood squares are easier to lay on an uneven rooftop. HandyDeck, Fiberon and Greatmats are some options.
Homeowners need to check regulations on fuel sources for rooftop fireplaces and cooking appliances.
GARDENS IN THE SKY
Weather is a consideration not just for the deck's structural and decorative elements, but for landscaping.
"Hardy plants that can take a lot of wind — and salt, in coastal areas — are a must," says Miami designer Fernando Wong. "I have an 80/20 rule for my landscapes: 80 percent hardy, and 20 percent flowers and other plants that add beauty but are more fragile. We sometimes use the same plants on the ground, to create cohesion between the two spaces."
The goal is to use greenery that softens the roof's hard materials.
Wong says he likes to use a limited color palette in creating lush spaces; two colors, and one of them is green. "I'll incorporate lots of flowering vines and things that cascade out of pots and planters," he says.
"I like rooftop gardens because they're so unexpected. There is something so wonderful about being high up off the ground, and seeing a lush garden in such an inhospitable place for plants."