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."