5 rules for rooftops

We recently looked at the ways designers are maximizing hotel rooftop space, and what logistics need to be kept in mind when creating a lounge (or pool) with a view.

In New York City, the Dream Midtown’s 2-year-old PHD Terrace is a prime example of an urban multilevel indoor/outdoor rooftop lounge. Carlita Alexander, a senior interior designer at Josh Held Design, contributed to the creation of the space and learned some valuable lessons about the unique needs of rooftop lounges in urban markets. 

“This was a gut renovation,” Alexander recalled of the project. The Josh Held Design team renovated an existing indoor/outdoor space and expanded a deck by about 50 percent. 

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“There were limitations to what we could do with the [design], and there were a lot of things that happened on the fly,” she said, acknowledging that this is fairly unusual when it comes to renovations. “You usually have a master plan and you follow that plan.” During the renovation, the plans had to change quickly due to logistical concerns. “The bar was moved several times because of the existing footprint and getting plumbing to where they needed the plumbing,” she said. “They needed to have proper drains as well, so that really affected everything.”

The planning that goes into bringing food to a rooftop lounge is “very intense,” Alexander said. “For the Dream Midtown, we created a corridor. We created a whole new kitchen and a private staircase so the staff can bring things up and down. That was really the most important thing because if you want to be successful, you can’t serve people cold food.” The team created diagrams on how people were getting from one place to another in order to determine what back-of-house elements would be necessary, and how to keep everything running smoothly. “Anytime you work on a multilevel project, you always have to do this,” she said. “You have to make sure how many steps it will take for the waiters to get from Point A to Point B. We even talked about doing a dumbwaiter, but in the end, some people don’t want the hassle. It’s better just to have somebody bring it up, so we just made sure that we had a kitchen that was in close proximity to where people could serve [the guests].” 

When created and operated effectively, a rooftop lounge can be a jewel in a neighborhood—especially in a major urban hub.  “When people get out of the office, do they want to be stuck inside a building? No, they want to be outside,” Alexander said. “People in New York don’t get to appreciate these beautiful views. They’re just so big. The rooftop gives people a moment to say ‘I’m here, I’m in New York, I’m living a dream.’ It gives them that gratification. Hotels are really capitalizing on that.”

Top Rules

Here are Alexander’s main rules for rooftop lounges in urban hubs.

  1. Make sure there’s plenty of shade. “New York in the summer can get really hot,” Alexander said. “The sun can be glaring. If you don’t have anything to cool people down, if you don’t have a misting system, if you don’t have umbrellas and things like that, then you’re really creating a problem.”  
  2. Make sure everything can be covered. This isn’t just for guest comfort in inclement weather, Alexander said, but for health codes. Think about birds flying up to your bar. Now think about what kind of germs they can leave behind. 
  3. Batten down the hatches. Wind is always a cause for concern, and even if you put walls up to minimize the breezes, storms can still cause damage. “You have to make sure that anything you put on a rooftop is structurally tied-in,” Alexander said. The structures all needed to be reinforced and tied down to the building. “Sometimes furniture flies off,” she said. “I’ve heard of chairs being picked up by the wind and blown off of the building. We definitely have to be aware of those things and make sure everybody is safe. There’s no design in the world that’s more valuable than a life.   
  4. Know what your target demographic wants. Will the rooftop only be open in the evenings? Will it be 24-hour? If the space is open during the day, Alexander firmly believes that a pool should be part of the design. “If you want to get that business going, you want that revenue, you should have a pool,” she said. (For the record, the PHD Terrace opens at 4 PM on weekdays and 3 PM on weekends.)
  5. Resources matter. “We’re only good as our suppliers,” Alexander said. As the lounge took shape, the Josh Held team had to regularly reach out to suppliers and see what products were available that matched everything else. “We were able to swap out some materials very easily, very quickly,” she said. “That was the biggest challenge because you have to make some concessions. You can’t have everything.” 

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