Roof decks are ideal for enjoying cool evenings, but adding one won’t be a breeze

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Private roof decks, the envy of the neighborhood when the weather is nice, are a trendy accessory in newly built townhouses in town-center-style communities in the suburbs. Adding a roof deck to an existing home is a bit trickier. It might be tempting to just slide open a tall window and shimmy out onto a flat roof, but to be safe and to have a truly functional roof deck, you’ll need to spend time and money.

“Most roofs weren’t designed to have people walk on them, much less put furniture on them and entertain up there,” said Ethan Landis, co-owner of Landis Architects/Builders in the District. “Adding a roof deck is like creating a great outdoor room, which is especially nice if there’s no good backyard. But you have to evaluate the condition of the existing roof first.”

Hiring a designer with experience adding roof decks to other homes in your neighborhood can make the project easier and result in a deck that’s not only attractive but also structurally sound and compliant with zoning and fire codes.

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“Each roof deck project is one of a kind,” Landis said. “They all have logistical challenges, and many of the ones we’ve built are on homes in a historical neighborhood, which means they need to be invisible from the street.”

Other issues include skylights, chimneys and air conditioners that might need to be moved or built around.

“Roof decks are particularly successful when they can be easily accessed from the interior living space, especially if you can do it from a true staircase, not a ladder or a spiral staircase,” Landis said. “The best ones not only have direct access, but they also have a kitchenette or a wet bar nearby to make it easier to entertain.”

The trick to adding a roof deck to your home

Rocco, left, and Cubby enjoy the rooftop deck of the 1895 rowhouse they share with Chris Ernesto and Marianne Huber on Capitol Hill. Ernesto and Huber acknowledge that it wasn’t an easy project to tackle. (Katherine Frey)

Adding a roof deck can be costly, particularly in comparison with the size of the project, Landis said.

“We originally hired a contractor for the roof deck who was doing an interior renovation for our condo,” said Betsy Karmin, who owns a home with her husband, Manny Strauss, in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Kalorama. “Contractors often tell you that they know how to do something even if they don’t. They assume they’ll hire the right subcontractors.”

After three years of wrangling over permits and discussing the project with the condo association, Karmin and Strauss switched contractors and finally got the roof deck they wanted.

“We use the roof deck far more than we used the backyard at our old house,” Karmin said. “When we’re on the roof, we’re up so high that there are nice breezes and, even better, no bugs.”

Every time Chris Ernesto crawled onto the roof of his circa 1895 rowhouse on Capitol Hill to make a repair or check on the air conditioner, he gazed at the view of the Capitol dome and longed to add usable space above the treetops. Ernesto, a building contractor, said he and his wife, Marianne Huber, spend as much time as possible outside in every season. Now that they have their roof deck, they even use it in winter.

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“When we bought this house five years ago, we always wanted to reconfigure the third floor, because it had this enormous bathroom that was just a waste of space,” Ernesto said. The couple made two previous rounds of renovations on their home before they took on the upper level, which they decided to package with the addition of a roof deck.

“We’re very careful to make these renovations with an investment viewpoint for future resale value,” Ernesto said. “We met with a real estate agent who said that we would at least break even someday when we sell and get back the money spent on redoing the upstairs and adding the roof deck.”

The project took about a year, Ernesto said, in part because of the permit process with the D.C. government. The design also needed to be compliant with rules for the designated historic neighborhood.

“We could design almost anything for the roof, as long as no one can see anything from the street,” said Matt Dirksen, a senior project designer and team leader with Landis. “At the same time, we had to make sure that what we built would meet the fire review standards, because if you bring people up there, you have to be able to get them out quickly in an emergency. You also need to meet requirements for party walls with neighboring houses.”

Dirksen added a hose bib for roof plants and electric outlets on the roof. An air handler had to be moved, but the rest of the roof was open and in good condition.

“Landis built a new staircase with windows on two sides and a full-size glass door to the roof, so there’s a lot of natural light coming into the upper level,” Ernesto said. “We discussed a lot of options for the sides of the roof deck and initially wanted brick walls, but that wasn’t allowed by the historic district. We felt like cables might feel unsafe for our dogs and our friends’ kids. Eventually, we ended up with James Hardie panels, which are stable and secure and offer wind protection and privacy.”

The panels are painted light blue with contrasting blue aluminum caps, and the deck is made of a pale composite decking material that minimizes summer heat. Ernesto says they initially used umbrellas for shade but found that it gets too windy to use them. Now they have “shade sails” attached to movable wooden posts to block the rain and sun.

“We added outdoor heaters, so we can use the deck in winter, too,” Ernesto said.

The project cost about $148,000, Landis said.

When Conroy Ritchie and Michael McCarthy first moved into their penthouse condo in D.C.’s Shaw, they discovered their private rooftop space was slanted and uncomfortable. The partners, who love to entertain, wanted to create a Caribbean-themed oasis in the sky for their friends to enjoy.

“I’m from Jamaica and grew up where the ocean meets the mountains, so I wanted something in tune with nature,” Ritchie said. “That’s why we chose wood for the roof deck and plenty of space for planters with colorful flowers.”

Another goal was to make the deck more convenient for entertaining, because the main kitchen in the condo is four flights of stairs away. They added an outdoor kitchen with a grill, a refrigerator, an ice-maker, a wine cooler and storage cabinets.

Ritchie estimates that the project took about two weeks to complete with the help of Landis and that it cost between $125,000 and $150,000, including the appliances and furniture. One of the most expensive elements, Ritchie said, was having the appliances lifted from the street level to the roof deck.

The roof deck accommodates as many as 85 people and includes multiple couches and dining areas.

“We added three large, heavy umbrellas for shade because sometimes we like to be up here in the late afternoon and early evening,” Ritchie said. “We have a big fire pit, which we keep covered with a tabletop in the summer when we don’t use it. The fire pit means we can use the roof even in the fall and early spring. We’ve even had Thanksgiving up here.”

One of Ritchie’s favorite memories is a Super Bowl party one year when it was warm enough to entertain on the roof, with the help of the fire pit.

“We also like to have small groups hang out and listen to music from our Bose sound system and just talk,” Ritchie said.

Although Karmin’s condo is also in a historic district, and her deck also needed to be invisible from the street, a roof deck of sorts was already in place when she and her husband bought the condo.

“We bought the top-floor unit in our building because we wanted a private roof deck,” Karmin said. “The previous owner had placed pavers on the roof and used some heavy planters around the edge to function as a makeshift railing. When the condo building replaced the entire roof, they removed the planters but put back the pavers, so there was no railing at all.”

The lack of a railing is a safety code violation, as well as scary, so Karmin consulted the contractor handling the interior renovations on their condo about the roof.

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“Our original contractor told us they had to make 42 penetrations through the condo’s new roof to anchor our deck,” Karmin said. “Needless to say, the condo board didn’t want us to do that unless we’d indemnify them, so we bought extra insurance to cover a leak or other issues caused by the installation. The estimates for the project were triple the original estimates. Eventually, we got another bid for the project based on the original plans, but that didn’t drop the price much. Finally, we found Landis, and they told us we didn’t need to penetrate the roof at all. That dropped the price to about $110,000 compared to the $160,000 estimate from the other company, plus we didn’t need to worry about the liability for the building.”

The roof deck includes a stainless-steel railing welded together to make a structurally strong frame for the deck, Landis said. Because a roof deck existed before Karmin and Strauss moved in, a staircase and door to the deck were already in place.

“The real challenge was that this building is eight stories high, and we needed a crane to lift up the materials,” Landis said. “We had to close the street for safety during the project. We also hired a metal specialist who designed the handrail system.”

Another issue was the cluster of chimneys and mechanical systems that distracted from the view. Landis built a custom-designed stainless-steel screening system around the chimneys with a cover that Karmin can slide off easily when the weather changes and residents want to use their fireplaces. A tall stainless-steel cabinet hides the mechanical systems yet provides access when needed.

The resulting deck has space for more than 60 people to enjoy fireworks and cool breezes. A wet bar just inside the door to the deck makes entertaining easier.

“Since our building is in an elevated part of the city, we have a perfect view of the Washington Monument, the Rosslyn skyline and the National Cathedral,” Karmin said.

Although a roof deck was the primary goal for Ernesto and Karmin, the roof deck at a home in Potomac’s Avenel was a serendipitous bonus to a master bathroom renovation for Sherry and Alan Ansher, married doctors.

“We did a two-phase renovation of the Anshers’ house, which is right on the golf course, starting with replacing a deck with a screened porch that maximizes the golf course view,” said Anthony Wilder, principal of Anthony Wilder Design/Build in Cabin John. “The second phase was to reconfigure the master suite to expand their closet, add a coffee bar and to redesign their bathroom. We built out over the roof of the screened porch and then realized we could create a roof deck for them at the same time.”

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The master bathroom has a corridor of floor-to-ceiling windows, visible from the glass-enclosed shower, that frame views of the golf course. At the end of the corridor, a tall and narrow glass door opens onto the roof deck.

“Even though it’s a private space off the master bathroom, the homeowners bring friends up to enjoy a glass of wine and the view,” Wilder said. “They sit up there sometimes at night when it’s peaceful and enjoy Avenel under the stars.”

The couple also have their morning coffee on the roof deck, whenever the weather permits it, and have told Wilder that it’s one of the happiest places in their house because they start their day with fresh air and a view.

The cost of the roof deck was minimal in comparison with the rest of the remodeling project, Wilder said. It required only the installation of the railing and clicking together a few pieces of decking material, because the rest of the project and the screened porch had already been designed with supportive engineered steel.

Usually, though, adding a roof deck to an existing home is costly.

“Don’t underestimate the expense and complexity of adding a functional roof deck,” Dirksen said.

If you fantasize about hanging out under the stars, take a careful look at the configuration and condition of your roof and your roof access. A roof deck adds outdoor living space to your home, but make sure you’ll enjoy it often enough to make it worth the cost.

Tips for adding a roof deck to your home:

● Check zoning rules before you begin the design process for a roof deck, because some areas might have restrictions or not allow them.

● Have your roof inspected to see whether it needs repairs and can handle the added weight of a roof deck.

● Consider how your interior space might need to be reconfigured for easier roof access.

● Make sure you have space for a staircase to the roof rather than a less functional ladder or spiral staircase.

● Decide if you want water and electricity — or gas for a grill — to be added to the roof.

● Consider whether you need shade and want a wet bar nearby.

● Hire a company experienced with building roof decks in your neighborhood.