Architecture

Taking the high ground

Inventive rooftop residences with striking sky gardens make seductive homes out of the air. Dominic Bradbury meets the families enjoying the high life.

September 10 2010
Dominic Bradbury

Little by little, the skylines of our cities are becoming decidedly greener. The rise and rise of the sky garden has the potential to reinvent radically the way our rooftops look and feel, as well as the way they are used. Moving on from paving and pot plants into the realm of seductive and eco-friendly gardens, rooftop living is becoming ever more sophisticated.

Leading the way to the heights of this horticultural dreamland are young families breaking with that familiar pattern of drifting off to the suburbs or the countryside in search of bigger gardens and a better quality of life, who are instead looking to enjoy all the benefits of outdoor living right in the heart of the city. Facing up to the realities of limited urban green space down on the ground – not helped by a long period of garden grabbing by developers – forward-looking families are now turning to the skies.

In London’s Shoreditch, Lucy Musgrave and her husband Zad Rogers have created an extraordinary family home up in the air, perched on top of a former Victorian warehouse. Here, the couple and their four children, aged from seven to 13, now have a two-storey apartment complete with planted balconies and a large sky garden. As well as a striking view, they have plenty of light and space – delights that can be in short supply on the streets below.

“The whole concept of the flat was developed around having a rooftop garden for our family and trying to green and beautify a small corner of grey and gritty inner London,” says Musgrave, founder of Publica, an urban planning and regeneration company, and a former director of The Architecture Foundation. “Our somewhat romantic notion was to create out of thin air something as intriguing as our inspiration, which was the rooftop gardens that one glimpses looking up from the streets of Rome.”

Within a long and winding story of planning complexity, Musgrave and Rogers managed to buy the roof space and air rights to the building and worked on creating their new home in the sky with the help of Zad’s father, Richard Rogers, as well as project architects Tonkin Liu. The children’s bedrooms and a large family room dominate the lower level, while much of the upper storey is one open-plan, transparent pavilion for living and dining, with the master bedroom adjacent.

Long balconies are planted with climbing wisteria, jasmine and clematis, and up on the roof there’s lavender, rosemary and sedum as well as solar panels. “The day after we planted the lavender there were hundreds of bees on the roof,” says Musgrave. “The plants were chosen for their scent, but they also give us enormous visual pleasure” – softening the edges of the urban landscape. “They provide a real sense of the changing seasons.”

For all the planning, design and practical challenges of building a home in the air from scratch, Musgrave suggests that the benefits to the family’s quality of life have definitely made it worthwhile. Sky-top living makes particular sense in this part of east London, where there are few parks and the density of building is high. Within this fashionable enclave, sky gardens have been springing up on the roofs of houses and apartment buildings as well as restaurants and hotels, such as Terence Conran’s Boundary, with a garden designed by Nicola Lesbirel.

Also in Shoreditch, artist Brad Lochore, working with architect Tony Fretton, has created a two-level roof garden for the building that contains both his family home and studio. Lochore has reinvented and extended a former warehouse for himself, his wife, Eden, and daughter Phoebe (10), creating interiors that are warmed by a use of natural materials. But the space is brought alive by the roof gardens, which allow for an uplifting indoor-outdoor relationship.

On the first floor, the dining room and kitchen open onto an elevated courtyard garden, partially protected from the elements and the neighbours by surrounding walls. On the floor above, the sitting room leads out to a sun terrace over the kitchen and study, which captures the western sun in the afternoon and evening.

“It’s a way to retreat from the world but still have access to nature,” says Lochore. “Roof gardens are a very persuasive idea but still much underused. In high summer it’s actually more comfortable for us to be outside. We can go and eat on the terrace or read a book, and Phoebe can play basketball out there. But it also has a hugely powerful visual effect, even in winter. It’s incredible relaxing just to look out onto the garden – to see the bamboo in the breeze is like looking at flowing water or a fire. It has that kind of mesmeric effect.

“It’s also important to the working day, as we both work at home. We get together for lunch and maybe have a salad on the terrace. It offers a respite from work, which is very important.”

For Lochore, Arabic secret gardens were an inspiration, while the example of North African cities such as Marrakech, where the rooftops of the medina are treated as a valuable part of day-to-day life, was equally enticing. “The most interesting rooftop gardens I have seen are enclosed to some degree,” says Lochore, “and are protected from the wind because they sit in between buildings. These kind of gardens really take the edge off the roughness of inner-city living because they offer tranquillity and peace.”

Architect Trevor Horne has also explored the idea of a semi-enclosed, sheltered sky garden at the Hackney home he designed for himself, wife Susan Morris and 18-year-old stepdaughter Hanna. Horne took on a large site in collaboration with artist friends, converting and extending two period buildings and replacing another to create a mélange of studios, offices and a family home up on the top storey of the new-build.

The key living spaces, as well as two of the bedrooms, open onto the courtyard garden, planted with substantial trees and shrubs in large, bespoke planters, while banks of glass doors open out onto the sky garden, bringing light and air through the apartment.

“This was the first time I had done a project for myself,” says Horne, “and I took the opportunity to maximise the outdoor space. It changes the experience of living in the apartment fundamentally, and in fine weather we live outside as much as in.

“The courtyard has its own microclimate – warm and pleasant deep into winter. It also floods the house with light; you are always aware of the weather and the seasons, birdsong is ever present, and the smell of the plants and the dappled light through trees fills the house. It’s a very optimistic experience, living here, even though we are in rather a gritty part of town.”

A strong sense of connection between outside and in is the key to creating a successful rooftop living space, especially for families, says architect Soraya Khan, who with Patrick Theis created a new pavilion and rooftop garden on top of a period building for brand consultant and designer Steve Edge and his family. The pavilion, which encompasses the master bedroom and a family room, flows out to a large new sky garden.

“One of the secrets is to have a substantial part of the home opening directly onto the garden,” says Khan, whose practice has since completed other rooftop residences in the city. “It just doesn’t work when you have to go up through a roof hatch. You need that constant sense of connection or it just won’t get used.

“But you do get so much more out of the city on the rooftops: the light, the air, the security, the space. It’s like being up in a castle, and the distance between the buildings means that you do still have privacy.”

The many benefits of sky gardens seem to outweigh the practical difficulties of creating a rooftop haven. Planning issues can be complex; access can be tricky; and engineering checks will always be needed to ensure that an existing building can support the weight of soil and planting, and whether or not extra structural support will be needed. Drainage and waterproofing is another big issue – but investment in such things is nearly always surpassed by the added value, financial and otherwise, of all that premium outdoor space.

In New York, Lisa Goode has spent a lot of time learning about loading, soil depths and planting since co-founding Goode Green, a design company specialising in roof gardens, with husband Chris and third partner Amy Trachtman. Goode Green was born from the experience of creating a sky haven in Little Italy, Manhattan, for themselves, their six-year-old daughter Charlotte and Chris’s two sons, Nicholas and Wilson.

Designed around a new penthouse pavilion by architect Andrew Berman, which contains the main living spaces, the substantial garden includes a lawn, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, hedging and even room for chickens to roam. A more traditional green roof of sedum and wild flowers sits on top of the pavilion.

“We feel completely blessed to live in the city and not have to crave green space,” says Goode. “It’s a big topic among people I know, some of whom have second homes and just want to get out of the city constantly.”

The Goodes bought their six-storey commercial building outright to gain control over the rooftop. They put in new steelwork, then refurbished and rented out the lower floors before creating their two-level apartment and sky garden. Goode says that, for all the technical challenges, the soil and planting will help to insulate the building, and will protect and preserve the waterproof membrane needed to seal the roof.

Then there can be environmental benefits, such as adding to the biodiversity of the city, and improving air quality by pumping out oxygen and soaking up carbon dioxide with all those plants. Roof gardens also help to control storm water run-off, which can be a problem in New York and London. And along with all the positives that the garden itself can bring to a family and its sense of wellbeing, growing your own food right in the heart of the city is, if you’ll pardon the pun, right up there.

“It’s a great education for Charlotte and the garden has really become part of who she is as she’s growing up,” Goode says. “I can’t get a berry at this time of year unless it’s out of her reach. She just stands at the fruit bushes and eats the raspberries or blueberries. I have to pick them while she’s at school.”

Goode acknowledges that not every building will be suitable for a sky garden, especially those already loaded with mechanical and ventilation equipment. But many existing city buildings will be ripe for rooftop gardens of all kinds, and the potential is significant. And for new buildings, where the rooftop use can be integrated into the architecture and engineering plans from the start, sky gardens could become a standard feature.

Architect James Russell planned a rooftop garden from the start for his new home on a stray piece of land next to a church in Brisbane. With offices on the ground floor of the new structure, Russell created a two-storey home on the upper levels, all arranged around a central, open courtyard garden. The principal living spaces of the home – shared with wife Trish and their three young children, aged between two and six – open out onto the garden, complete with child-friendly lawn.

“Outdoor space is limited in Fortitude Valley, where we live, so the garden in the middle of our house offers a sense of escape,” says Russell. “Living and dining spaces are on one side, play areas on the other. The glass doors between inside and out sit open almost all year round, and the kids run backwards and forwards. For us, most of our time is spent outside or on the edge of the garden.

“Our home would be like a unit or a flat without the outdoor space and it helps to bring north sun deep into every room in the house. We experience the elements completely through the garden: the sound of the birds, the smell of the grass after the rain or the moisture building before a storm…”

Back in the 1960s, some notable Modernist architects dreamed up the concept of “streets in the sky”, as they sought to make the idea of tower block living seductive. They failed. But now the dream of rooftop living is set to be reborn in the form of gardens in the sky. It’s a much friendlier, fresher idea all round and perfect for the moment – and for making the most of family life deep in the urban jungle.

“Empty roofs are such a waste of planting and growing space,” says Lochore. “One day we will get to the point where you have building control legislation that means you have to do something with your roof. It clearly makes sense. There’s just so much potential.”