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Condo Rooftop Garden

By Mary Estes, Estes and Company
-- Landscape Architecture by Scrafano Architects, Chicago, Ill.

Atop one of Chicago's trendiest residential buildings in the West Loop area is a park-like rooftop area of 1,845 sq. ft., large enough to entertain about 50 guests. Two ipe wood pergolas extend from the brick entrance to the owner's condominium loft, offering shade and architectural interest. A 260-linear-foot stainless steel safety barrier rail encloses the perimeter. The rail is capped by treated ipe wood. The lawn is a mixture of Kentucky bluegrasses: 'Midnight Star' (moderately dense turf with extremely dark green), 'Bewitched' (low compact growth) and 'Bedazzled' (a new hybrid for improved color, texture and disease resistance).
Photo: Catherine Tighe

Atop one of Chicago's trendiest residential buildings in the up and coming West Loop area sits a private roof garden where stainless steel mesh blooms year around amid feather reed grass, Baptisia, sedum and juniper.

Meandering through this assembly of framed steel mesh and robust vegetation are a pair of curvaceous ipe wood decks connected by a natural bluestone stepper path. The trail leads back to two ipe wood pergolas that slant upward and serve as a shade feature at the brick entry to the owner's condominium below.

Not surprising is that this urban patch of designer metal, evergreens, annuals, serpentine decks and stepping stones solves the perennial dilemma for city dwellers - where to enjoy that speck of green. A virtual elevated park, this stylish swatch of earth is an outdoor refuge for the family living only stair steps away. At 1,845 square feet, it is large enough to entertain up to 50 guests, resilient enough to endure the harsh winter climate, and abundant enough to incorporate a small lawn, child's sandbox and intriguing pieces of abstract art.


This serpentine deck of ipe wood, a Brazilian hardwood preferred for its resistance to decay, heat and fire, is one of two decks the owners use for entertaining and lounging. The rooftop area is large enough to entertain up to 50 guests. To soften the hardscape the area beside it was planted with Feather Reed Grass, Verbena, black-eyed Susan and catmint.

Sculpture in the Sky
Look closely at the elegantly framed stainless steel panels. While appearing randomly placed at varying heights and widths, their arrangement is not accidental. Each panel has been artfully sized and positioned to obscure the unsightly HVAC system, ventilation stacks and other mechanical needs of a five-story residential building. Look closer at the metal panels against the Chicago skyline and a pattern develops, one that abstractly replicates the heights, shapes and textures of the phalanx of buildings seen in the distance.

Such was the intent of Scrafano Architects of Chicago. Scrafano designed the roof garden as an extension of the design the firm created for the owner's loft-style condominium below.

The owners − Mrs. Day, a professional photographer, and Mr. Day, a bicycle industry executive − are intrigued by metal patterns, and they articulated their preference to Scrafano. The firm carried out the concept under the guidance of Carol Barrett, project architect.

Taking the skyline-inspired metal screen a step further, Scrafano used the same stainless steel material as infill panels for the 260-linear-foot guard rail that encloses the garden's perimeter. The rail, which acts as a safety barrier along the roof edge, is capped by treated ipe wood.


Ipe was also selected for the serpentine lounging deck, as the Brazilian hardwood is resistant to decay, heat and fire. Soils, plants and grasses are planted in a series of prefabricated rooftop containers tied into a single drainage system. Plantings include feather reed grass, Verbena, black-eyed Susans and catmint. The structural plan for the rooftop garden was designed by the engineers at Klein and Hoffman of Chicago, and built by Lawrence Construction of Chicago. Chicago's tallest building, the Willis Tower, is seen in the background.
Photo: Catherine Tighe

Creating the System
To support the weight of the garden, comprised of the pergolas, deck, soil and irrigation, Scrafano turned to structural engineers Klein and Hoffman of Chicago, whose structural plan, built by Lawrence Construction of Chicago, spans several columns of the building.

For the decorative metal mesh, the team called on McNichols Co. of Tampa, Fla. and selected various patterns of stainless steel wire mesh. Guided by Scrafano's scale model and design drawings, C & B Welders, Inc. of Chicago, fabricated and installed the panels in the specified artistic manner. The original plantings, grass and soil supplied by Kinsella Landscape, Blue Island, Ill., grow in a series of prefabricated rooftop planting containers that are tied into a single drainage system irrigated by Advanced Sprinklers Systems Inc. of Highland Park, Ill.

Intrinsic Landscaping, Inc. of Glenview, Ill. maintains the landscape, and the family's nighttime gatherings aloft are illuminated by Lightscapes, Inc., of Chicago.

Scarfano's deck design, built by Landek, Janesville, Wis., was created to provide walkable spaces large enough for strolling, grilling and entertaining, and sturdy enough to withstand the seasonal changes of The Windy City.

The choice of ipe, like that of the stainless steel wire mesh panels, was for practicality, durability, as well as aesthetics. Motivated by the city skyline and the owner's interest in metal, Scrafano gravitated to stainless steel because of the available variety of textures, patterns and openings that are sufficiently sized to promote ventilation. Mounted in stainless steel channel frames, the 70 removable panels vary in size from 42 - 62 inches in height and two - six feet in width, each mimicking a distant building and installed with a "drop in" method to avoid the appearance gates.


Guided by Scrafano Architects' scale model and design drawings, C & B Welders, Inc., of Chicago fabricated and installed 70 stainless steel removable mesh panels, artfully sized (42 to 62 inches high and 2 to 6 feet wide) and positioned to obscure the less than appealing aesthetics of the HVAC system, ventilation stacks and other mechanical needs of a five-story residential building. This mesh is the same material used for the perimeter fencing. The varying panel silhouettes, when seen from a distance, abstractly look like a representation of the Chicago skyline. The natural bluestone stepper path with post-style lighting leads residents through feather reed grass, false indigo and catmint.
Photo: Catherine Tighe

Simple Lines & Sustainable Materials
The team originally planned to use a powder coated galvanized mesh, but the stainless steel was preferred for its corrosion resistance and low maintenance. Likewise, ipe, a Brazilian hardwood, was preferred for its resistance to decay, heat and fire. Scrafano frequently incorporates metal with holes into commercial and residential design, said Elissa Scrafano, whose firm is known for design and build projects that explore the relationship between "the built and the natural."

"Our clients typically identify themselves within their environment and have an acute awareness of the natural boundaries," said Scrafano. "We try to weave the interior with the exterior spaces. The views and connections between the two play an important role in the design process."


Design Team
Designer: Scrafano Architects, Chicago, Ill.
Structural Engineers: Klein and Hoffman, Chicago, Ill.
Lighting: Lightscapes, Inc., Chicago, Ill.

Vendor List
Stainless Steel Screens: McNichols Co., Tampa, Fla.
Soil and Plants: Kinsella Landscape, Blue Island, Ill.

Construction Team
Contractor: Lawrence Construction Services, Chicago, Ill.
Deck construction: Landek, Janesville, Wis.
Irrigation: Advanced Sprinklers Systems Inc., Highland Park, Ill.
Metal Fabrication: C & B Welders, Inc., Chicago, Ill.

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May 19, 2019, 8:17 am PDT

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