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Up on the roof: Baltimore's best decks are sky-high

ArchitectureGardeningNew Year's Day

When Greg and Heidi Bathon gaze out over the rail of their Federal Hill deck, they have a breathtaking view of the city, from the stadiums to the harbor and beyond. But when they turn around, their view of the deck itself is just as compelling.

Greg Bathon, a retired businessman, is an avid gardener, honing his considerable skill on his deck. "When we moved in, the deck looked like a bowling alley," he says. "There was nothing there. We had arches and arcades built to put up vines so we could shade it. I never saw a plant I didn't like."

The Bathons use their 1,200-square-foot deck as another room of their penthouse condo, which at 1,700 square feet is only a little larger than the deck. "We eat out there at night, have people over and my wife plays bridge out there," says Bathon. "We use it all the time except for the dead of winter. It's an extension of our home."

The view from a deck like the Bathons' drives up the value of a home, says Cindy Conklin, a Prudential real estate agent and Federal Hill resident. "A really good harbor view could add $100,000 to the value of a house; a partial view could add $50,000. It's a significant amount of value. There's a finite number of good views from decks."

But even without a spectacular view, rooftop decks can add value to a home. Matt Knoepfle of Building Character, a construction firm specializing in downtown renovations, estimates that a rooftop deck adds at least an additional $5,000 to a house's appraisal, and usually more.

"With the demand for houses these days, a designer or architect would be crazy not to add a deck," he says, estimating that most decks cost between $10,000 and $30,000 to build.

All decks have an interesting view of something, he notes, whether it's the city, the water or simply the yard. Plus, he adds, they add a tangible benefit for city dwellers: privacy.

"In the city, where you're connected to your neighbors, there's not a lot of privacy on the back patio — if you have one — and out front, you're only 5 or 10 feet from your neighbors' doors," he says. "So if you can get on the roof, you have more privacy, just because you don't have people walking by."

However, privacy sometimes comes with a price: lack of easy access. Experts acknowledge that when deck access is even slightly difficult, people are far less likely to use the space.

"Ease of getting to the deck is what makes it most usable," says Knoeplfe. "Some have spiral staircases, some have staircases all the way from the ground. We build houses with internal staircases so you get to the deck from your living space — you walk out a door. You might step outside just to read the paper if you don't have to climb 40 steps to get there."

Rooftop decks are widely used on certain holidays, says Knoepfle, including the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve. But often, they go unused most of the rest of the year.

From his vantage point overlooking Federal Hill, Greg Bathon sees this firsthand. "Ninety percent of decks are unoccupied for most of the summer," he says. "They're too inconvenient — and it gets too hot up there."

But the Bathons can walk out to their deck directly from their penthouse (they have eight doors leading to the space), so access is not a problem. Thanks to Greg Bathon's enthusiasm for gardening, shade isn't an issue, either.

However, he concedes that gardening on the roof can be a complicated proposition. It requires a keen understanding of the climate and use of water.

"If you're gardening on high, there are different microclimates," says Bathon. "Exposure to the northwest wind is murderous for some plants."

The Bathons created several separate seating areas on their deck and used foliage to distinguish spaces. "We have five 50-year-old pines that form a small private pine grove on the south side and wisteria on the south and east side." He experimented with different plantings to determine what grew best on each zone of his deck.

Scott Scarfone, a landscape architect and principal and founder of Oasis Design Group, a landscape architecture firm in Fells Point, echoes Bathon's sentiments regarding the challenges of planting on the roof. "In a rooftop environment, you get some pretty extreme temperatures — sustained periods of heat, drought and potentially a freezing-of-the-roots situation. We try to pick the plants that are most durable and hardy."

Plant irrigation can be a challenge for would-be urban gardeners. Bathon has access to water on his deck, and he installed an Israeli-made irrigation system, making it easy to keep his plants healthy. He believes that if more people had easy access to water, roof decks would get a lot more use. "Irrigation systems can be inexpensive and easy to do — but you need the water up there in the first place," he says.

Installing a rooftop garden may also raise structural issues, says Scarfone. "Anything you do on the roof equates to weight," he says. "Anyone wanting to do a rooftop garden should seek the services of a structural engineer to evaluate the integrity of the existing roof."

When considering furnishings, rooftop deck owners should think about how they will most frequently use the space, says Scarfone. "It may be an outdoor room that just handles dining functions, or a lounge or a series of chairs where people will sit and chat."

Maureen and Michael Weiss say the way they've used their roof deck has changed in the 15 years they've lived in their Federal Hill home. "Before kids, we had bigger parties — we'd bring food up. Now that we're older, we're tired of trucking up three floors, so we use the deck more after dinner and after the kids go to bed. We use it with the kids, but not in the same way we did before," says Maureen Weiss.

When the Weisses redecorated their deck earlier this summer, they split it into two "zones" based on how they use the space. "We have a dining table in the back and the lounge area in the front," she says, adding that they use the lounge section more, since it has a better view of the harbor.

The view is the key, agrees Virginia Navid, of architecture and design firm Navid Oster Design. Navid has designed rooftop decks across the city, including a Roland Park rooftop that overlooks an elaborate garden installed by late landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, and a pair of decks on a Fells Point condo offering dual views — one facing the harbor and the other looking over the city.

For Navid, much of the joy of a rooftop deck comes from orienting yourself in the city and appreciating the landscape from above. "It's like going up the Eiffel Tower," she says. "You can really appreciate where you are, especially in these weird nooks in Baltimore."

What's hot

Roof decks have been a Baltimore real estate must-have for years. Today, homeowners are making the most of their sky-high spaces by adding accessories and structural changes that make roof access easy. Here are some things to look for in a roof deck, according to experts and homeowners:

Easy access: The best roof deck is the one used frequently — which means that getting to it should be no problem. "The biggest trend right now is making the access to get to the deck as easy as possible," says Matt Knoepfle of construction firm Building Character. "For years, we built decks out the back of the second floor, another deck above it and another to get to the roof. Now the trend is to have that staircase inside the house on the second or third floor, so it's not a chore to get to the deck."

Store it: Federal Hill resident Maureen Weiss's deck has a storage closet where she keeps furniture cushions and plant pots during the winter. "It's on the wall in the back of the deck — and it's a very nice feature to have," she says.

Indoor-outdoor: "There are so many indoor-outdoor fabrics now," says interior designer Liz Dickson. "You can do really great things with custom cushions and area rugs." Dickson loves bright colors for outdoor spaces; brands like Sunbrella now offer outdoor-friendly fabrics in hundreds of colors and patterns.

Feel the burn: Scott Scarfone, a landscape architect and principal and founder of Oasis Design Group, says he's seen a rise in people adding contained gas or propane fireplaces to their rooftop decks. "They're becoming really popular, particularly in the evenings. You can buy a prefab, contained unit that you put on your deck. It's different than a fire pit, where you would build a fire with combustible material. You can turn these off, they're relatively safe and you don't have to worry about sparks shooting out or emptying out the coals."

Watch the weather: When shopping plants or furniture, consider the weather first. Federal Hill urban gardener Greg Bathon warns that not all plants can withstand the tough temperatures on the roof. His neighbor Maureen Weiss shopped around for furniture that wouldn't fade in intense sunlight. "I was worried that fabric wouldn't stand the test of time," says Weiss, who opted for powder-coated furniture that is light and easy to stack.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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