Designs With Altitude

A rooftop or balcony garden can create valuable living space outdoors, but making the most of what can be a small area can be challenging. Here are some factors to consider.

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Hide CaptionShow CaptionConsult a structural engineer who can conduct a thorough roof inspection and make recommendations on what you can and can't do.
Weight considerations. On the roof everything that adds weight counts. Before making any plans (and after you have approval from the building management if you're renting), verify the structure, says Bill Mitchell, rooftop garden designer and construction manager with Chicago Specialty Gardens in Illinois. This professional can also help you to make sure your plans will meet building codes.

Consider these options for protecting the structure:

  • Go for lightweight furnishings and construction materials (wood instead of stone). Instead of using heavy tiles, landscape designer Joan Grabel in Studio City, Calif., had an artist paint a client's roof floor to look like tile to match the building's Spanish architecture (shown here at right).
  • Use containers made of lightweight materials, such as zinc, foam or fiberglass pots, instead of heavy terra-cotta or metal. Generally the larger the pot, the heavier it'll be—so size does matter.
  • Take into account that plants will grow and ultimately get heavier. If you're stressed for lightweight options, use herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses, instead of woody plants like trees and shrubs.

Neighbors. Inform neighbors if you're planning on doing a noisy construction project, especially if you live in an urban area and you're already in cramped quarters. It can help in building a level of respect and communication with each other.

--Large photo courtesy of Chicago Specialty Gardens