All too often in the past, developers looked inwards for their project’s spatial needs, growing a building’s interior spaces and footprint, without exploring how bringing in more of a connection with the outside world could enable programmed activities and help financially. It was easier and cheaper to design projects horizontally than vertically, building in rather than up and out. But this created developments that banished the landscape to the perimeter, making slight use of outdoor possibilities, giving people little chance to be outside while shopping, living, or enjoying the resort. Outdoor areas that could be expanded for interior uses were never realized. Gardens that offered a breath of fresh air were not woven in. They overlooked the possibilities of building up, the stacking of uses, and the added connection to the outdoor world that could only be realized by utilizing the rooftops.
Fortunately, developers are now discovering the advantages to programming their projects vertically, whether because there is no more land to build out or because they have been awakened to the idea that we, as humans, desire and need an easy connection to one another and the outside world, and that there is so much more that can be done with the space above us. At Lifescapes International, we have been lucky enough to work with these kinds of visionary clients for a long time and have learned over the years not just why it is important to design landscape spaces on the roof, but how to plan for the most efficient, beautiful, and financially beneficial outcome.
WHY GO HIGHER?
The obvious answer is lack of space, but that is far from the only reason. Why should the ground floor be the only place in a building that has direct access to the outside, be it for pools, dining terraces, or just a peaceful garden? Just think of the added amenities you could offer with the expanded space of an outdoor environment to add seating for events or other uses.
A less tangible, but equally important, benefit to consider is how the landscape psychologically benefits your guest, and what that means to the greater likelihood they will rent or buy your home, eat at your restaurant, or stay at your hotel. Guests want to readily have the option to get outside and breathe the fresh air. Its effect is calming and allows you to mentally disconnect more easily, and in this era of social distancing, it is something that should no longer be ignored. Today, having a direct relationship with the outdoors allows a venue to function partially or completely outside, as may be necessary in the future for many business types. Businesses with unused roofs, open storage areas, or exposed top levels of parking garages should even be looking at how to retrofit those spaces for temporary or permanent uses.
Ease of movement around a site should also be a consideration. Like many of the resort casinos that we have designed in Las Vegas, and around the world, The Venetian and Palazzo Las Vegas are examples where the functions were stacked, with a pool garden level over the retail and gaming, so that guests can easily get to the outdoors and connect directly to the elevators, a short distance away. Back-of-house and mechanical connections can also be simplified and staff walking reduced, which is another cost savings.
An added benefit, which may also reduce the bottom line, or at the very least help with local municipalities and your place in the community, is the environment. Creating landscaped spaces on the roof can be beautiful and reduce the heat island effect of too much hardscape, count towards LEED certification, or local site water capture requirements. At Encore Boston Harbor, we were able to create a rooftop garden, visible from the above gym and hotel tower, that tied seamlessly into the resort design style, and helped with their achieving LEED Platinum status.
CONSIDERATIONS WHEN DESIGNING UP:
First, none of this is easily achievable unless we, as landscape architects, are brought into the team early in the design process, to work with the owner, architect, interior designer, and engineers; to look for all possibilities in design and make sure that the project takes advantage of the outdoor connections and the possible monetization of spaces.
Once we start this process, the first thing we work on is identifying relationships between the interior and exterior uses and maximizing their space and potential. Then, as we look outwards, a higher vantage point means that you are allowing your guest a chance to see the surrounding city or landscape, so what are the best views from which to see, and just as important, what overviews do you want to hide? At One Museum Square, a residential high-rise project in the Miracle Mile section of Los Angeles (to be completed in early 2021), the rooftop pool is positioned to showcase a 180-degree view overtop the city, with the adjacent amenity garden area overlooking the La Brea Tar Pits and LACMA across the street.
Being able to be part of the design process early on is just as important for the logistic side of things, too. Water for pools and fountains, planting areas, and trees all have considerable weight, and the structure needs to be designed to meet your needs or investigated for the most cost-effective solutions. They can also leak, so working with the architect and engineers to build in a double means of waterproofing and water capture will prevent costly repairs of the finished rooms below. Space for water feature equipment, planting irrigation and drainage are also items that need to be worked into space on the roof or the floors beneath it. And of course, the destinations that we create are designed for people to gather, so we need to work with the architect to understand occupancy and the amount and placement of additional emergency exit stairs.
Another consideration that needs to be addressed early on is the fact that pools and planting areas need depth for water and soil. Is there enough height in the floor below to recess them down in? That is preferable, but often is not feasible due to cost or building height limitations. If that is the case, then the pool(s) and planting need to be all or partially raised. If raised, then how much, and how do you disguise the possible 4’ high walls needed for a pool or tree planter? Then there is the ripple effect that raising decks and elements may require steps and handicap ramps. The trade-offs in how much space they require, versus sinking things into the deck to do away with them, is part of the design negotiation we must discuss from the beginning. This also applies to exploring the possible advantages that using a pedestal paving system might bring to help create level decks for furniture and easily accessible utility runs.
Of course, there are always other indirectly related building elements that we must deal with on the roof deck. Kitchen venting from below and HVAC enclosures are some of the necessary evils that we must accommodate on a roof, but working with the team and understanding their flexibility and limitations early on is key to developing the most cost-efficient worthwhile spaces. This is also true with tower window washing equipment, that can require large swaths of the roof’s perimeter to be open, and an early understanding of this can better allow spaces to be designed to disguise their presence.
Lastly, there are the possible future considerations necessary for placing destinations on a roof. If you have a pool area, or an event space, where will the furniture be stored when not in season or in use? Is there space on the roof for storage, or are elevators sized and conveniently located to take it to another level? We also always want to make sure that the gardens that we create on the roof can be maintained, or plants replaced when needed. Replacement shrubs or small trees require access to a service elevator, but larger trees might need to be craned in, so these issues should be explored in the design process to make sure that the owner’s expectations and design realities are considered.
NOW, HOW DO WE DESIGN IT?
Once we have collaborated with the team on the logistics, our main goal is to create environments that allow guests to feel like they are walking into a beautiful ground floor garden, that just happens to have an amazing view out or up to the sky. As you emerge from the inside to the outdoor terrace, pool, or dining area, it is all about creating an impact and the suspension of disbelief. Dramatically stepping down, keeping sightlines open, and the use of clear, full glass windscreens ensure drama. Then carry the terrace, grass, or water panels to as close to the edge as possible, which blurs that line and makes the space feel like it connects with the horizon. We are achieving this with our design for the upcoming Pendry Hotel & Residences West Hollywood (opening 2021), where the residential building steps down an extremely sloped site, allowing us to create vast private garden terraces for the units that feel more like they are on a hillside promontory than on a building. In situations where you do not have these views, being outside is still what is important, so it then becomes about creating a lush garden that envelopes you with foliage and frames the blue sky above.
If planters and pools need to be raised, we strive to visually hide them by layering on stepped planters and integrating functional elements through built-in seating or outdoor kitchens. Pottery clusters with lush planting layered in front of a wall can break the height down and add a sculptural presence while water gently flowing over a tiled vanishing edge pool wall creates animation and turns this height into an advantage. And once all the physical issues have been dealt with, the all-important tree and shrub design needs to create the perfect garden room. It must be just as layered and nuanced as if it is on the ground, conducive to the space’s use and needs, as well as taking increased wind exposure into account. After all, we want the gardens that we create on the roof to be ultimately functional, but feel just as natural as if they are on the ground.
So now we have gone through the “how, what, and why” of designing for the rooftop. Is it easy? No, but finding the right design partners makes it easier. The best results come from the challenges of the most unique situations. Those are things that we, as designers, love to tackle. It’s about heightening the guests’ experience, meeting their psychological and socially distanced needs, and creating more enjoyable destinations for them, that will in turn offer the developer more options and a greater cash return. That is what gets our blood pumping and makes what we do so much fun for our team.