Raise The Roof

In crowded cities with equally tight real estate markets, sometimes the best (and only) option is to build up. As in up on the roof. Standing at the edge of a cordoned-off street in downtown Manhattan, a crowd of onlookers waited. Just a few hundred feet down the block, an industrial crane idled. Several bystanders, many of whom first approached the scene with an air of casual indifference, quickly reached for their camera phones as the crane steadily hoisted a petite glass-and-stone structure from the bed of an eighteen-wheeler. Higher and higher it rose until the little house looked like a tied-up matchbox dangling precariously from one's finger. The crowd doubled, everyone's necks straining upwards at this marvelously bizarre occurrence, before the little house disappeared out of sight behind an adjacent rooftop.

URL: http://www.city-magazine.com/features/issue_53_raise_the_roof.php

Despite New York being one of those spectacular settings where you can see just about anything, a flying house isn't exactly one of the first sightings that comes to mind. But at Top Penthouse, a NYC-based firm that custom-designs, manufactures, and then installs rooftop homes, levitating houses are an integral part of the job.

This most recent project, a 370-square-foot structure residing on the roof of a former loft warehouse in downtown SoHo, will function as an additional living space for the building's penthouse owners. Indeed, the possibility of spotting an airborne house is reason enough to keep watchful eye skyward, but already perched atop the city's roofs are a fantastic and vast display of skyline curiosities: gabled cabins, quaint wood-shingled Cape Cods, mini glass-and-metal cubic structures, as well as DIY oddities and a few ramshackle remnants of "cowboy construction" projects of the late '60s and '70s.

"If you're somewhere high enough, you can spot a whole new landscape," says architect Andrew Berman, who has worked on several rooftop projects. "There's an awful lot of unused space up there." But in cities where space is such a commodity, are these little rooftoppers high-class havens or sensible housing solutions?

What do these rooftop trailers and mini stratacastles offer urbanites and how do they affect the way their owners dwell and function within their environment? A transatlantic journey provides some answers.

Rooftopias, as it were, have been a trend on the rise across Europe for some time now, which isn't an entirely surprising phenomenon considering the prominence of low-rise roofs, the lack of densely packed skyscrapers, and the proclivity for prefabricated units. Whatever negative connotations may have been associated with "prefab" in the past (institutionalized, cookie-cutter, flimsy), the European market is quickly changing that; the range of products and construction--in style, size and cost--is quite extraordinary.

The Loftcube, a modular dwelling unit created by Berlin-based designer Werner Aisslinger, is a white-shelled pod that can be deposited onto rooftops via crane and easily transplanted to various locations--be it another rooftop or a trailer park. The concept behind this customizable 420- to 580-square-foot "iHouse" is two-fold. It can function as a pick-up-and-go living unit for individuals with nomadic lifestyles. Or, it can facilitate housing growth and help maximize unused real estate by providing relatively low-cost ($111,000-$180,000, depending on size and interior) apartments for building owners to install on their flat rooftops. That's a potential boon for Berlin's real estate market, where a myriad of flat-topped buildings were constructed during the post-World War II Communist era. Besides offering a snazzy little habitat to reside in, the company's larger goal is to provide the market with a financially and structurally accessible network of rooftop communities--not unlike a series of stylish rooftop trailer parks.

While much of Loftcube's appeal lies in its distinctive, Jetsonesque aesthetic, the prefab abodes produced by the London-based design and development firm First Penthouse are more subtle, typically blending in with the roof's original architecture. The company, which acts as a developer by buying the roof space first, then adding the rooftop apartments and selling them off, was founded as a means of getting around the usual obstacles that can be expected when building on-site in the city: traffic, permits, and the often unpleasant British weather. "The difference is absolutely mind-blowing," says Hakan Olsson, who founded the company in 1992 with his wife Annika. "Life is so easy when you can have all the noise and dust elsewhere. And then one day it just shows up and you move in."

Despite the time-saving logic behind the execution of the Olssons' projects, the tony penthouse apartments themselves are in no way skimpy. Projects have ranged from 300 to 4,000 square feet per unit, and cost upwards of $1,000 per square foot, depending on the location's real estate demands. But times--and clientele--are changing; contrary to rising costs just about everywhere else, Olsson reports that First Penthouse's prices will actually go down.

"Originally our clients fell into the super-rich category, but we have streamlined the process so that we can build at a lower cost and more people will be able to buy them," he says. Olsson also plans to expand First Penthouse's developments to include other European cities, and eventually even the U.S., where the concept of plopping a prefabricated structure atop one's roof is a comparatively new notion. Indeed, New York, where space is at the greatest premium, is currently host to the most visible number of roof-rooted residences.

Top Penthouse has found a nice little niche for itself in Manhattan, though there does exist a growing number of architects like Berman who are willing to take on the challenge of building on-site. In 2005, he completed a 4,500-square-foot extension atop a Grand Street building. The space is a veritable rooftopia, surrounded by lawn, gardens, and trees, and includes a greenhouse, kitchen, dining room, and living room, all attached by an interior staircase to the penthouse below. The owners clearly wanted an existence within both environments--town and country--but why go through all the trouble of constructing a half-country house in the center of New York for the same cost of a buying a small property in the countryside?

"This was an extremely ambitious project," Berman says, "but [the owners] are committed to living in the city." Berman, who also has a site near completion in the city's Flatiron district, suggests this increasing trend is about ferreting out natural environments within the confines of the city. "Rather than creating an artificial living space in the heart of the city, it's more about the desire to create a natural environment within an artificial context."

Myriam Castillo, principal of Top Penthouse--which crane-deposited and installed a custom house on St. Mark's Place in 2005 to create a duplex apartment (which is often the case from the interior of these sites)--cited the project as an instance of expanding the residents' space within their means, a common motive among her clients. And yet Castillo maintains that at the same time, Top Penthouse's customized designs are certainly on the high-end of the housing scale. It's true that at $300-$400 per square foot, the company isn't exactly offering bargain-basement housing, but in a market where the average studio apartment is selling for nearly $400,000, everything's relative. The additional luxury and the additional bargain is the same thing: the savings of time and the lack of construction commotion--a benefit that applies to neighbors as well.

In other cities such as Chicago, where the greater land availability makes upward expansion less necessary, rooftoppers are rare. Architect Kenneth Schroeder owns and designed one of the exceptions: an additional "tier" to top off his two-story house situated on a half-size lot in Chicago's Old Town area. His motivation for the project was the need to expand on a very small area of land. He wanted, however, to maintain the integrity of the original 1930s building, which is why he chose to design a new 450-square-foot space that looked like a separate entity and set it back from the building's original perimeter foundation.

Though they're not as prevalent as in New York, Schroeder believes the city of Chicago's current green roof initiatives and prompts for "rooftop usability" may be an impetus for future projects. If you're going to have lawns and gardens up top, why not combine aesthetic and function by turning them into backyards for rooftop apartments?

But sensible as rooftop dwelling spaces may be, do they run the risk of alienating their residents from their urban surroundings, especially those of us on the ground? They shouldn't, argues Berman. "They give back to the city because they're pleasing to the eye--they're enhancing the environment," he points out. Indeed, diversity is a rare thing to encounter in the real estate market these days. In American cities where ground-level development means the opening of a new chain store or franchise eatery, these petite additions to the skyline--however exclusive--are apt to be a welcome sight. Famed urbanist Jane Jacobs might even have referred to them as "eye-catchers," an important category of urban diversity she described as being "more surprising, various, and interesting than anyone, aiming primarily at city design, could deliberately plan. Truth is stranger than fiction." Yes, Ms. Jacobs, especially when flying houses are involved.

The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko in Montreal