Graftworks tackles the ups and downs of a West Village roof deck
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 9/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
When it comes to harsh climates, the Alpine wilderness doesn't hold a candle to New York. Just ask Graftworks principals Lawrence Blough and John Henle, who got a crash course on the city's demanding ecosystem while designing a roof deck for a West Village town house. "We'd just completed a project on a mountainside in Vermont," explains Blough. "But it was nothing compared to what this site is subject to—scorching sun, heavy winds, acid rain, soot." To say nothing of draconian city building codes. Coverage of the 1,100-square-foot roof was limited to just 20 percent, leaving little wiggle room for a program that encompassed lounging in both sun and shade as well as space for plantings and an open-air shower.
For a model of urban survival skills, Graftworks didn't have to look far—just a few yards in any direction. The roof deck is inspired by a ubiquitous Gotham icon: the barrellike water tower, common to buildings over six stories tall. "To generate the shape of the deck," explains Blough, "we took the water tower's slatted-wood form, sliced it open, and laid it sideways, partially unfurled." The deck's curving surface starts as a canopy, rolls down along a clapboard bulkhead that encloses stairs to a fifth-floor apartment, and unscrolls across the roof in six parallel strips, peeling up at the very back to accommodate planters. A slight slope from front to rear promotes drainage.
Given the landmarked town house's 150-year age, the scheme required complex engineering. "The existing roof was not designed for heavy weights, and there was a lot of deflection caused by occupant load," says Henle. Rather than anchoring to the roof, the deck therefore attaches to both party walls. Supporting it are four pressure-treated glulam beams mounted on stainless-steel shelf angles bolted ' into the brick parapets. The decking itself is knotty cedar, chosen for its warm reddish tones and relative budget-friendliness compared to mahogany. "We prefer cedar in its natural color, rather than letting it patinate to gray—although it does require a little maintenance, ideally an annual sanding and oiling," says Blough.
Courtesy of clever cedar built-ins, the design offers copious seating. A slatted bench extends past the bulkhead, toward a small front patio, to define one side of the deck. Opposite, three of the decking strips undulate to form lounges supported by molded marine-plywood sheets. Graftworks based the seats' profiles on the radial curve of Edgar Bartolucci and John B. Waldheim's 1940's Barwa chaise, which reposes languorously on a tubular rocking base. The Graftworks lounges share the Barwa's curve but differ slightly from one another in height and the angle of recline.
"The furniture is a microcosm of the architecture," says Blough—elaborating that "to economize on space, all elements fulfill two programs." The dual-purpose canopy was conceived to accommodate plumbing for the eventual addition of an outdoor shower, and further efficient gestures maximize usable area while minimizing what the New York City Department of Buildings defines as coverage.
Graftworks's artful design also addresses the rooftop's unique topography. "In New York, where property values are astronomical and the buildings are so dense, the guts get exposed on the roof," says Blough. "It creates this weird landscape of vents, stacks, pipes, and sanitary drains." Built 14 inches above the actual rooftop, the deck conceals all such infrastructure. But with views that embrace everything from Wall Street to the Empire State Building, who's looking down anyway?