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American Society of Landscape Architects


November 2007 Issue

What Lies Beneath
Even on a glamorous Manhattan roof terrace, beauty isn’t merely skin deep.

By Susan Hines

What Lies Beneath

The Manhattan Roof Terrace created by the New York City firm of Sawyer/Berson was completed in the summer of 2001. At that time, the Twin Towers were the focal point of the view downtown. Six years later, when New Yorkers such as Brian Sawyer, ASLA, and his associate Tim Orlando, ASLA, visit the terrace, the vanished towers are still apparent to them. “It is the big missing tooth in the view downtown,” Sawyer tells Landscape Architecture.

The client renovated both the roof garden and the apartment at the same time. “Originally, the idea was to redo the existing roof,” says Sawyer. However, the original layout of the roof prevented direct access to the main part of the terrace, and the “garden” was a glum collection of pots and mismatched furniture. Visitors approached at an awkward angle, sidling along the edge of the roof before reaching the entertaining space. “We insisted that the new terrace live up to the modern elegance of the apartment below,” Sawyer says.

Now, access is via a new 388-square-foot pavilion space on the rooftop. After climbing the stairs from the apartment to the roof, visitors reach a small sitting room, which offers year-round views of the terrace and skyline. One corner of this tiny space is constructed entirely of glass, connecting the little room to the outdoor living area both literally and figuratively.

The designers achieved their goal of creating an approach directly into the garden’s lounging area. A small fountain, a dining pergola that is both sun shaded and heated, and an outdoor kitchen and shower stall can all be found on 1,100 square feet above this penthouse apartment in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood.

Collaboration with the architecture firm was essential to the project. For example, the same pavers were used throughout. Inside, the flooring is polished, but outside, the surface remains rough to prevent slipping. Also, the design of the small pavilion building is low key, and the pale stucco finish doesn’t distract from the terrace design or the views. Sawyer/Berson successfully discouraged the client from adding skylights, convincing him that these intrusions on the roof would significantly diminish the outdoor entertaining space.

Sawyer cites several inspirations for the design of the terrace, including the architectural details of Pierre Chareau’s 1932 La Maison de Verre in Paris, an icon of the International style, and American architect Paul Rudolph’s “jungle gym” terrace addition to his New York City town house on Beekman Place.

The sleek and seamless modern look is underscored through repetition of materials. Painted steel and stainless steel railings are employed throughout the space, while perforated stainless steel is used on the shower surround and planters. Black honed granite tops the bar, the dining table, and the fountain exterior. Even the elevator bulkhead is hidden by frosted glass panels that light up in the evening.

Fiberglass planter liners are hidden behind a painted steel framework and perforated stainless steel panels. Plants line the perimeter of the terrace on the west and most of the south side, enclosing the seating area and providing 328 square feet of planting space. The growing medium is rich topsoil amended with plenty of vermiculite.

At the time of Landscape Architecture’s visit in late August, everything from the single Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora) that blocks the view of an ugly building to the west to the French lavender (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’) and silver brocade artemisia (Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’) looked healthy and lush. Meanwhile, the late-blooming Tardiva hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’) was beginning to flower and showed every sign of carrying on into autumn.

Although all the plants are proving their hardiness in the face of the extreme conditions on a New York City rooftop, the most eye-catching are the dwarf Japanese garden junipers (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’). Housed in custom-made cast-stone pots, several of these shrubs are now several years old and quite large. Planting in pots highlights these junipers’ procumbent habit. Placed on the concrete pavers, the plants serve as living sculptures.

The herbs, which include woolly creeping thyme (Thymus lanuginosis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and two sages (Salvia officinalis and Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’), add more than texture and scent to this space: The plants set the color scheme and soften what might have been a hard-edged steely look. The gray greens, blue greens, and silvers of the plant palette are extended to the soft furnishing of the outdoor lounge areas. Despite the extensive use of metal and concrete, the terrace seems cool and inviting on a hot day rather than off-putting and industrial.

In the complex world of New York’s elite apartment-building bureaucracies, beauty isn’t merely skin deep. In addition to satisfying the building’s board, structural changes requested by residents must also meet the requirements of the managing agency. Devising technical solutions to satisfy each building’s various construction requirements is just as important to these projects as good design.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the approval process for roof terraces can stretch out three months or longer, since the designs must gain approval from so many entities and must pass muster with consulting architects and engineers. In some cases the city’s Buildings Department and the Landmarks Commission must also extend approval.

Most restrictions are generally aimed at preventing lasting damage to the structure. In an effort to limit weight, many buildings set the maximum size for planters at two square feet in diameter and allow just 18 inches of growing medium. Fears of property damage from roof leakage have prompted other buildings to ban irrigation systems entirely. Rules limiting or restricting sound systems also come into play when designing a roof garden or terrace, since music for outdoor enjoyment is a frequent client request.

To make this client’s roof terrace a reality, Sawyer/Berson was required to meet strict criteria. The terrace could not touch the roof membrane, and all the components of the design had to accommodate roof repairs and maintenance. Moreover, the building management company required that the entire roof terrace improvement be designed to be disassembled and removed.

The solution was a structural steel frame that supports the terrace paving, pergola, fountain, planters, and railing and is anchored to just four structural columns of the building. Since the original grade of the roof surface sloped as much as 18 inches, the framing also created a level surface. The concrete pavers actually hover above the roof membrane. Held in place by neoprene/nylon paver spacers, the pavers sit directly on the steel beams and easily pop out to provide access to the roof below. Even the pump for the recirculating fountain is housed in the empty space safely away from the roof membrane.

“It’s far more elaborate than a standard ‘paver pedestal’ roof,” Sawyer says. “And it took quite a long time to prevail, to convince the management agency that the idea was sound.” The steel framework allowed the firm to accommodate the client’s weighty wish list without concerns about the roof’s load-bearing capacity. Had they ever applied this solution to a roof terrace before? “No,” says Orlando, who managed the project for the firm and oversaw construction of the steel framing. “However, it was a logical extension of much of our other residential work.”

According to Roger Miller of Roger Miller Gardens, who maintains several Sawyer/Berson-designed gardens including this one, the rules and regulations pertaining to roof gardens have tightened significantly over the past decade or so. Miller, who has a landscape architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania, remembers, “When I first started, you could do anything. Now it’s very stringent. We have actually seen some gardens dismantled because of concerns about a building’s load-bearing capacity.”

At the moment, Miller’s firm and his gardeners take care of approximately 60 gardens across the city. Some are on rooftops and others are tiny courtyards hidden behind the city’s brownstone buildings. From March to December, he sends a gardener to the Manhattan Roof Terrace once a week.

“Medium to medium-high maintenance,” is how Miller characterizes this terrace. Spring, with its tasks of replanting and pruning, is the busiest time on the roof, but the fountain needs a weekly cleaning. “This terrace requires the attention of a very good gardener,” he says. “It demands watching, but it has turned out well, and this year it looks particularly good.”

What comes back and what needs to be replaced? It varies a lot from year to year, Miller reports. “Generally speaking, the sage comes back but rosemary doesn’t come back—it really has to be in a very protected place. The artemisia come and go, and the thyme comes back sometimes.” It is difficult if not impossible to predict. “Some years we lose those junipers, and that means losing three or four years of growth. Last year we didn’t lose them, and that’s why they look so fantastic this year.”

Like Orlando, Miller cautions against the very notion of a “menu of roof garden plants.” When it comes to New York City roof gardens, he says, “It’s all about microclimates, and it really varies everywhere. One site may seem similar to another site—but it’s not.” He cites examples from other roof gardens: a zone 6 maple on one side of a terrace that would only accommodate zone 5 maples on the other side. In another case, 30 wisterias on a terrace all survived the winter with the exception of one on a corner that caught all the wind coming off the Hudson River. “Yet,” he muses, “just six feet away around the corner, the same vines were lush because of just a few walls with reflected heat.”

The client is extremely satisfied with his roof garden. As for Sawyer, he says, “I’ve attended several parties on that terrace and it is pretty magical and a true New York City experience.” He goes on to reflect, “One of the more intense evenings I’ve been up there was the weekend after 9/11.” The owner had planned a party far in advance and decided not to cancel despite the tragedy. It proved the correct decision.

“Those were terrifying and sad days,” Sawyer remembers. “No one wanted to be alone, and people were congregating. That evening on the terrace was pretty amazing and very comforting.”

PROJECT CREDITS Landscape architects: Sawyer/Berson Architecture & Landscape Architecture LLP, New York (J. Brian Sawyer, ASLA, principal/designer; Tim J. Orlando, ASLA, associate/project manager). Architect penthouse renovation: Pierce Allen, New York. Structural engineering: Gilsanz, Murray, and Steficek, New York. Roofing consultant: Walter B. Melvin, architect, New York. Lighting design: Fisher Marantz Stone, New York. General contractor: Regele Builders Inc., New York. Landscape contractors: Roger Miller Gardens LLC, New York; Whitmore’s, East Hampton, New York. Landscape maintenance contractor: Roger Miller Gardens LLC, New York.

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