Rooftop Decks Making the Dream a Reality

Rooftop Decks

For many New Yorkers one of the

high points of city living is the urban vista they enjoy from their building's communal rooftop deck. Even when the view's not the greatest, just being able to enjoy the outdoors in a relatively private setting is a luxury worth holding on to. If your building wasn't built with a rooftop recreational area, it's never too late to investigate the possibility of adding this valuable amenity that, according to real estate brokers, can increase the marketability of the units in your building. If your co-op building has been converted from a rental, the conversion plan might state that the rooftop is intended to be developed into a recreational common space, adds Ellen Kornfeld, vice president of the Manhattan-based property management firm Taranto & Associates, Inc..

According to Marilyn Harra Kaye, president of The Prudential MLBKaye International Realty, Inc., a real estate brokerage firm in Manhattan, a rooftop deck can be a tremendous asset to a co-op or condo building and a luxury that even a small building can consider offering to residents and buyers. Any amenity that you add is helpful in terms of more traffic which, in turn, will bring you higher prices. The more amenities you have, she explains, the wider your audience. Not everyone wantsor can afforda country house for weekend getaways, and Kaye meets buyers who specify that they're looking for a building that has some outdoor space.

But before you order the patio furniture and planters, be sure to consult with a knowledgeable engineer or architect who specializes in rooftop analysis and installations. A professional can give you a clear understanding of the various options and considerations that are key to a successful project and that can help ensure the longevity of your building's rooftop.

Winning Them Over

Five years ago, at the landmarked Times Square Building on West 43rd Street where he's employed as purchasing manager, Gamal Basiouny played a major role in the decision to hire professionals to install a rooftop deck. A 29- by 29-square-foot area was converted by laying a number of 12- by 12-inch square concrete tiles called pavers on a series of plastic pedestals. Since the tiles are elevated, proper drainage is promoted. And although to date there have been no problems with leaks or damage to the roof, there would be easy access to the rooftop if any repair work were needed in the future.

Our beautiful urban garden has stone planters and benches. We have transformed a tar roof into something pleasant and maintenance-free, says Basiouny, a Jackson Heights resident and co-op board member who has fantasized about doing the same to the roof of the 15-unit, pre-war building where he lives. My co-op and the Times Square were both built in 1921. I'd say there's a lot of dM-ijM-` vu here. A roof deck is a good thing. Why can't we have it? We could use an inviting outdoor area for socializing, sunbathing or even a little container gardening. It would be a sanctuary. A place where we could go to read a book or to socialize with a cold drink. We could even conduct our board meetings on the roof. Since we're only 15 units and we all have different schedules, it's not likely that all residents would use the roof at the same time. Some might want to sunbathe. Those who are gone all day could enjoy stargazing in the evening.

Althou ffb gh Basiouny hasn't yet put together a formal proposal, and the board is far from taking a vote, he has broached the subject with some of his neighbors. But even those who share his enthusiasm are doubtful that the project will happen anytime in the near future. Their feeling is based on the fact that they know of no other buildings in the Jackson Heights historic district that have a roof deck. Unfortunately, Basiouny says, no one wants to be the first. So, for now, he's doing his research and biding his time.

For every building that's having trouble gathering support for a roof deck, there's another where the idea receives unanimous approval. This was the case at the 15-unit co-op in Manhattan's up-and-coming Hell's Kitchen, where Michael Bouson serves as treasurer. We have a lot of extra funds obtained through flip taxes, says Bouson, and I thought we should use the money to do something on the roof that would enhance our building and that we could all enjoy. Having a roof deck certainly makes our building more attractive to buyers. It implies that there's an aesthetic among shareholders, and a desire to improve things.

How It's Done

Most roofs are not designed as a walking surface or for pedestrian traffic, explains Anthony Szabo, chief engineer at Rand Engineering, P.C. in Manhattan. If you let people use it before you've done a legal deck installation, you can risk losing your roof warranty. According to Szabo, there are plenty of unofficial roof deck installations in New York City; but the Building Department penalties are ten times the cost of the filing fees which go up according to the size and complexity of the rooftop project, and can range from $300 to several thousand.

Before the architect or engineer draws up the plans that will be submitted to the Building Department for review and approval, he must first study the rooftop to determine whether the roof has been constructed of wood or concrete and then map out the best approach. According to Szabo, the Building Department's allowable design load for rooftop decks is 40 pounds per square foot. While not all buildings are built to withstand this weight on the roof (generally concrete roofs are stronger, but some wood roofs are designed for 100 pounds and some concrete roofs for only 20), most can be reinforced. One popular method is to install steel beams from parapet to parapet (the low walls at the edges of the roof). Another is to extend steel columns up from the weight-bearing walls below the roof.

Quarry tiles present no problems in terms of the roof warranty and can be an ideal choice for the concrete rooftop that needs no reinforcement, says Szabo. This process involves ripping up the asphalt and then setting the tiles into a bed of cement that is placed over the waterproof membrane. The price for quarry tiles is usually about $50 to $60 a square foot including labor. Another choice is to build a wood platform. While wood is beneficial to the rooftop because it is lightweight, it does present a problem since the Building Department has a rule that not more than 20 percent of a roof's surface may be covered with wood for fire reasons. As with other methods where the rooftop is built up, the typical wood deck is between eight and 12 inches above the original roof surface so the parapets will also need to be raised to protect people from falling.

Treated wood typically contains formaldehyde which is a carcinogen, adds Wayne Bellet, president of Wayne Bellet Construction, a building restoration firm located in Manhattan. This can be a problem, especially if little kids will be using the rooftop. Another option is plastic woodwhich looks just like wood in terms of grain and colorbut it's not porous so it gets slippery when it's wet. The Cadillac of roof coverings is quarry tile. Quarry will last 20 years and look gorgeous. It will protect the membrane, but the down side is that if you ever do have a leak you'll have to break through the tile to get to the roof below. This is a very labor-intensive repair.

Protecting Your ffb Investment

Once the rooftop has been converted to a recreational common area, precautions need to be observed to ensure that the roof system below is protected. Dirt and leaves falling between the pavers is one concern. According to Alan Epstein, president of Epstein Engineering, P.C. in Manhattan, the engineer or architect who designs the deck will prepare a detailed list of procedures for maintaining the new space with guidelines for weight limits of furniture and planters, occupancy limits and precautions involving soil falling through the cracks. The main concern is always that the membrane will be punctured or damaged, Epstein explains. You want to do everything to the satisfaction of the roofing contractor and materials manufacturer so no warranties are abridged or voided.

Skip Roach, president of Ex Tech, a roofing firm that has offices in Long Island City and Newark, adds that the typical roof warranty is for ten to 20 years. If the roof deck has been installed according to guidelines provided by the roofing system's manufacturer, the roof should stay leak-free for the length of the warranty. Roach warns that the architect or engineer should not proceed with any deck installation without prior consent from the manufacturer of the roofing system on his company letterhead. It's like if you took a Ford car to a Mercury dealer, explains Roach. The Mercury dealer would get you on the road, but your warranty would always be with Ford.

Making it Look Nice

Once the rooftop deck has been installed, it's time for the finishing touches. A rooftop deck is a lovely thing to have, but if you don't outfit it with nice things, no one will use it, says Bellet. Basiouny has found that if you're creative, you can furnish a rooftop deck for very little money. Along with the usual wooden benches and planters, he has found inexpensive stone accents in the $20 to $200 range including carved urns, charming gargoyles and fountains.

It's important to measure carefully and take into consideration whether the items you want to purchase will fit into the elevator, up the stairs or through doorways, warns Al Seabra, operations director of Sitecraft, a division of the Rosenwach Tank Company located in Long Island City. Sitecraft performs deck installations using interlocking wood modules (two-foot-square or four-foot-square) that are laid directly on the rooftop, and also offers a wide array of wood furnishings from planters to benches. Our products are made from wood that is naturally weatherproof and decay-resistant, so it doesn't need additional treatment. And, Seabra adds, these low-maintenance wood surfaces require only an occasional wash with water and a mild detergent.

Using the Space

As with any other common area, the rooftop deck requires guidelines outlining acceptable behavior. I think of myself as the roof police, explains Kornfeld. Once you decide (among other things) the hours of use, who gets keys, whether radios are allowed and who's responsible for litter disposal, these rules should be circulated to all owners. Kornfeld also recommends a daily walk-through by the super. He's your eyes and ears. An annual inspection in the spring by an engineer will also help ensure that the deck is being used properly in terms of weight distribution and that the roof system below the deck remains in good shape.

Ms. Mosher is Associate Editor of The Cooperator.

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  • great article! refreshing in your honesty and knowledge. keep articles like this coming!
  • what about sun umbrellas or other shade structures? Is there a liability should they blow off the roof? Recommended models that stay put?
  • I have a question about weight. I have had two cedar planters custom-made. They are 60" long, 18" wide, and 18" deep. In the past couple of days, I have been doing some calculations about the weight of these filled containers (bottom 2" with drain gravel. I have calculated that the weight of the containers, when the soil is not saturated, could come to over 1000 pounds. (I have each planter on four 1.5" dowl rollers for mobility.) I want to use the containers on a large 'shoulder' deck on the 14th floor of a concrete high-rise condo building. Is there any risk that the weight will be a problem (that the strength of the deck would be inadequate to take this weight? I have sent an email to the property management property, but they have not replied. I really would appreciate your thoughts. I realize that your opinion would not be based on any professional (architectural) expertise, and I would never quote your opinion in any other communication. Thank you very much! Mike
  • I am curious about surface resting roof decks, a requirement for my coop. I have been unable to find any construction drawings outlining how to properly install such a deck. Do you know any place (possibly with NYC DOB) that has schematics to use? Thanks!
  • Are their ADA requirements that must be met by condominium buildings contemplating the installation of a roof top deck?