Designing Rooftop Gardens
Q&A with Chris Myers, a NYC rooftop garden designer
Imagine sitting in a luxurious outdoor living space complete with ipe decking, comfortable furniture, an outdoor kitchen and more. Now imagine that this space is in the middle of New York City and has a spectacular view of the city and its many skyscrapers. This is exactly the type of retreat that Chris Myers of Just Terraces creates. I had the chance to talk to him about his work, check out our conversation below for an inside look at designing and installing urban rooftop gardens.
How did you get into the niche field of creating rooftop outdoor living spaces?
It was actually quite simple. Back in 2005 I transformed a friend's terrace as a wedding gift. The simple transformation, which consisted of some terra cotta containers and plants as well as a bistro table and chairs, sparked something. The enjoyment I got from that experience, combined with my background in set design and landscape architecture brought things into focus.
I've been creating lavish and livable terraces for six years now and absolutely love it. I think of myself as someone who produces the maximum effect in the smallest spaces. It's a lot like espresso versus coffee, I'm the espresso guy.
The terraces Chris designs enhance his clients' well-being, give them a refuge from city-life and provide outdoor entertaining space.
Who do you design for?
We work with city dwellers, mainly in New York, who desire their own private outdoor space. Our clients tend to have a keen idea of how they want to use their space. They come to me with visions of sitting outside and enjoying a glass of wine in the evening while gazing out at the city lights, or sipping coffee in the morning and looking down from above while the city comes to life. My favorite people to work with are the ones who really know how to let their hair down. These are the clients who will put an outdoor rooftop living space to good use. We've also designed for hotels and done projects in Paris, London and other major cities.
What are the benefits of a rooftop garden?
First off, I've never had to convince anyone of this. People come to me already knowing that they want it, it's my job to make it a reality. But, for the skeptics out there here's a list of benefits:
- Well-being: in urban environments private outdoor areas are rare, taking advantage of yours will be beneficial to your physical and emotional health
- Refuge: the nature of a terrace is that you look down upon the city, this unique vantage point is less threatening and quite entertaining
- Entertaining: in the city any outdoor space for socializing with friends and family is always a benefit
Can any building support a rooftop garden?
The short answer is no. The buildings in New York City were all built in various eras and were subject to different construction laws; additionally, they all have property managers or co-op boards that have to approve any work. Generally, our projects fall into one of three categories: pre-war construction, post-war construction or new construction. Each building type comes with its own set of benefits and challenges.
- Pre-war: these buildings are built to last, but their roof drains tend to back up
- Post-war: these white brick buildings are fairly strong and often have less rigid co-op boards and property managers
- New construction: these buildings are great rooftop garden candidates especially if we can get involved during construction and work with the structural engineers to determine where support is required
What are the major differences between designing a rooftop garden and designing a suburban landscape?
A lot of the design goals are the same - we want to create an inviting, relaxing and livable outdoor space. However, there are many unique challenges when working on urban terraces that aren't present in a ground-level garden.
- Weight: This is the number one issue. We have to make sure that we spread the load as evenly as possible. Also we use a lightweight, fast draining soil mix so that planters don't hold excessive water.
- Plant Height: Almost all NYC buildings restrict mature plant heights to 6 feet, which greatly limits our choices.
- Wind: Everything on a rooftop must be secured properly. For this reason I never use umbrellas, instead we build pergolas that have been approved by an engineer.
- Temporary Nature: Rooftops require maintenance, thus everything we install must be removable. Nothing is structurally affixed; removing bolts is all it takes to dismantle our designs. My background in set design comes in handy here.
- Accessibility: When installing a rooftop garden all of the materials and equipment need to be brought up by elevator, or lifted in with a crane. We've waited over three hours for an elevator and gotten numerous parking tickets while unloading.
Many NYC rooftops offer incredible views by day and night, making them feel less small than they actually are.
What design tips can you give us for small outdoor spaces?
First, don't clutter - I am a big believer in less is more. Typically the surrounding views are much more interesting to look at than another piece of outdoor furniture. This is especially so in an urban environment where the view is changing constantly. Also, don't overwhelm the space with too many colors. A simple palette works best in tight spaces.
Second, focus on double duty design. One of my great inspirations is yacht design. On a yacht every component serves multiple purposes. For every element of my rooftop designs I ask myself how it could serve a secondary purpose. I like to use built-in bench seating that doubles as storage. I've also used hollow planters to hide utilities. For one client who wanted to cook using a smoker I designed a sideboard that's also a wood rack.
Contact Information:Chris Myers
Just Terraces in New York, NY
Sarah Hutchinson, contributing writer for Landscaping Network