Launch Slideshow

Successful Rooftop Transformation in Chicago

Successful Rooftop Transformation in Chicago

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

  • A new spiral stair leads from the penthouse balcony to the roof garden. Edges that face away from the view are planted with taller trees, such as quaking aspen.

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    A new spiral stair leads from the penthouse balcony to the roof garden. Edges that face away from the view are planted with taller trees, such as quaking aspen.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    A new spiral stair leads from the penthouse balcony to the roof garden. Edges that face away from the view are planted with taller trees, such as quaking aspen.
  • From the service entrance, ipe planters and a small pergola beckon visitors into the garden. The existing vent stacks, painted black, tag this as an urban space.

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    From the service entrance, ipe planters and a small pergola beckon visitors into the garden. The existing vent stacks, painted black, tag this as an urban space.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    From the service entrance, ipe planters and a small pergola beckon visitors into the garden. The existing vent stacks, painted black, tag this as an urban space.
  • Raised planters hold a mix of hardy shrubs and perennials such as boxwood, heuchara, sedum, and nepeta. Beyond the smaller pergola is the service entrance, reached via elevator and a one-story stairway.

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    Raised planters hold a mix of hardy shrubs and perennials such as boxwood, heuchara, sedum, and nepeta. Beyond the smaller pergola is the service entrance, reached via elevator and a one-story stairway.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    Raised planters hold a mix of hardy shrubs and perennials such as boxwood, heuchara, sedum, and nepeta. Beyond the smaller pergola is the service entrance, reached via elevator and a one-story stairway.
  • Shoji-like ipe-and-acrylic screens hide the rooftops air-conditioning units, while letting sunlight shine through.

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    Shoji-like ipe-and-acrylic screens hide the rooftops air-conditioning units, while letting sunlight shine through.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    Shoji-like ipe-and-acrylic screens hide the rooftop’s air-conditioning units, while letting sunlight shine through.
  • Grapevines growing on the larger pergola will eventually shade part of the seating area. Here, the thin slate pathways, manufactured for roof decks, become a border inset with ipe, like a rug.

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    Grapevines growing on the larger pergola will eventually shade part of the seating area. Here, the thin slate pathways, manufactured for roof decks, become a border inset with ipe, like a rug.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    Grapevines growing on the larger pergola will eventually shade part of the seating area. Here, the thin slate pathways, manufactured for roof decks, become a border inset with ipe, like a rug.
  • The Midwestern-style prairie is a lush foil for the city view.

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    The Midwestern-style prairie is a lush foil for the city view.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    The Midwestern-style prairie is a lush foil for the city view.
  • Planter boxes help to create a cozy entertaining niche.

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    Planter boxes help to create a cozy entertaining niche.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    Planter boxes help to create a cozy entertaining niche.
  • A bench sits opposite the grilling station near the seating alcove.

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    A bench sits opposite the grilling station near the seating alcove.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    A bench sits opposite the grilling station near the seating alcove.
  • Heavy Metal switchgrass and Summer Beauty allium add color and texture. To the right is a built-in grill.

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    Heavy Metal switchgrass and Summer Beauty allium add color and texture. To the right is a built-in grill.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    ‘Heavy Metal’ switchgrass and ‘Summer Beauty’ allium add color and texture. To the right is a built-in grill.
  • A firebox was cut into the existing fireplace, extending the garden season. Firewood stays dry in a niche under the polished concrete bench.

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    A firebox was cut into the existing fireplace, extending the garden season. Firewood stays dry in a niche under the polished concrete bench.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    A firebox was cut into the existing fireplace, extending the garden season. Firewood stays dry in a niche under the polished concrete bench.
  • The planter boxes are hollow at the bottom, reducing the weight and allowing irrigation-line access through a hole in the back.

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    The planter boxes are hollow at the bottom, reducing the weight and allowing irrigation-line access through a hole in the back.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    The planter boxes are hollow at the bottom, reducing the weight and allowing irrigation-line access through a hole in the back.
  • Low-profile, L-shaped stakes light the pathways, continuing the interiors contemporary aesthetic.

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    Low-profile, L-shaped stakes light the pathways, continuing the interiors contemporary aesthetic.

    600

    Linda Oyama Bryan

    Low-profile, L-shaped stakes light the pathways, continuing the interior’s contemporary aesthetic.
  • The vent stacks could not be moved, so they were painted black.

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    The vent stacks could not be moved, so they were painted black.

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    Linda Oyama Bryan

    The vent stacks could not be moved, so they were painted black.
  • The existing parapet wall provides some wind protection.

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    The existing parapet wall provides some wind protection.

    600

    Linda Oyama Bryan

    The existing parapet wall provides some wind protection.
  • The site plan shows the air-conditioning units (bottom left), which are hidden by screens near the elevator entrance. A spiral stair, mid-plan, connects the penthouse balcony to the rooftop.

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    The site plan shows the air-conditioning units (bottom left), which are hidden by screens near the elevator entrance. A spiral stair, mid-plan, connects the penthouse balcony to the rooftop.

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    Courtesy Hoerr-Schaudt Architects

    The site plan shows the air-conditioning units (bottom left), which are hidden by screens near the elevator entrance. A spiral stair, mid-plan, connects the penthouse balcony to the rooftop.
 
 

Once seen simply as an urban luxury, roof gardens are a developing technology that cools our dense cities and makes them more livable. This one, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, sits atop a five-story building and is reached by way of a spiral staircase on the penthouse balcony. Not only does the garden connect the owner to nature and a skyline view, it also thrives in a city famous for its strong winds and extreme seasonal temperatures.

The expansive terrace, designed by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, is a Midwest prairie in microcosm. Two steel and mesh pergolas—a smaller one leading into the garden from the rooftop’s service entrance, and a larger one sheltering the seating area—are connected by slate pathways that wind past ipe planter boxes and a meadow of perennials and ornamental grasses. Structural concerns and exposure to the elements, of course, make rooftop transformations tricky. Here’s what makes this one work so well.

Finessing Infrastructure

The building’s existing roofscape, with its protruding mechanical guts, was unsightly. Shoji-style screens made of ipe and frosted acrylic hide eight air-conditioning condensers, but the gaggle of goose-neck PVC stacks couldn’t be screened. “There were so many of them, and they had to be left as is,” says Abigale Baldwin, a firm principal. “We said, ‘It’s an urban environment; we’ll paint them a dark shade that will recess out of your vision.”

Working with a structural engineer, the firm calculated the roof’s weight-bearing capacity, taking into account the weight of the soil, trees at maturity, live load (the people using it), and snow load, in addition to the built components. “For simple perennials, we typically aim for 100 pounds per square foot,” Baldwin says. “The soil alone weighs 60 to 80 pounds per square foot when wet.”

The rooftop needed no structural reinforcements, though a cross-brace was added under the penthouse balcony to support the spiral staircase. Paved surfaces were lined with metal stud sleepers, which act as a second support structure and level the slightly pitched roof. The pergolas, built off-site and craned into place, were bolted to the 6-inch-thick concrete roof deck.

Including Creature Comforts

An existing fireplace contains three flues that service the residential units below. Luckily, “it had been built large enough that we could cut in our own firebox and flue,” Baldwin says. Although the fireplace is the sole source of heat here, the landscape architects sometimes install radiant heaters in pergolas on similar projects. They also provided a range of seating options, including a high-topped bar table (elevated to enjoy the view), sofa, coffee table, and side chair. On a rooftop, “you want weighty pieces that won’t get caught by the wind and blow away,” she says. At dusk, lighting brings the garden to life. The main pergola is fitted with recessed lights. Flush fixtures on the sides of the planters illuminate the small pergola, and thin L-shaped stakes brighten the pathways. Wiring was installed in conduits buried on the beds’ edges.