How to design a perfect hotel rooftop

Hotel rooftops are a blank slate for designers, offering a prime opportunity to make the best use of peak views and open air. But while every hotel’s rooftop presents a chance to show off, it also presents unique challenges. 

Dining in the stars

Arguably the most popular option for a rooftop space is a lounge or restaurant. The success of this kind of venue can vary, however, depending on logistics (do you build a kitchen on the roof or risk food getting cold as it travels from the downstairs prep space?) or Mother Nature. 

Some hotels will use a banquet pantry or dedicated kitchen that caters to events to prepare food for a rooftop restaurant, and some avoid hot food altogether. In upstate New York, the Courtyard Lake George’s new rooftop terrace was designed primarily for events and receptions, said Melissa Carter, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, and will use temporary bars and food prep stations as needed. “Because it’s all outdoor space, there’s no prep kitchen, no server station where we can collect dirty dishes,” she said. The rooftop can only be accessed by one elevator and two stairwells, Carter explained, which is fine for safety concerns but would make serving traditional meals challenging. As such, the rooftop will focus on catering for events and will bring up cold dishes from the downstairs restaurant in the elevator as needed during regular use.

Then there’s the weather. “Being on the rooftop makes you very weather dependent,” said Maurice Moreno, manager of the Rooftop at the Embassy Row Hotel in Washington, D.C., which opened in May. “You have to contend with the wind, rain and heat. You are totally exposed.”

As such, designers need to plan for extremes when creating an outdoor bar. Nancy Nodler, principal at Gensler, who designed the Kimpton Aertson Hotel in Nashville, made sure that the rooftop bar was under cover—but even that might not be enough. “It is open on three sides, so if you get driving rain, it's not going to help you much,” she said. “It’s really to protect against heavy sun or to give you some shading.” 

Nodler also purchased umbrellas with specialized bases. “We had to buy the ones that are designed for heavy wind loads,” she said. “I think they were, like, 500 pounds each, because again, the wind can just take them, pick them up and throw them off the top of the building.” The team also installed a short parapet wall with glass to keep wind to a minimum. “It gets pretty windy eight floors up,” Nodler said. 

If all else fails, Gensler used the mixed-use nature of the building to full advantage. The rooftop of the hotel is shared with a tower of branded residences, and guests can always move to indoor spaces on the eighth floor of the building.  

A (Workout) Room with a View

Some hotels are finding other uses for rooftops. At the Hyatt House New York Chelsea, which opened in the spring, the top level is home to the hotel gym—an idea that came from Metin Negrin, owner and president of Lexin Capital, which owns the property. 

“We initially designed the gym in the basement and left the rooftop for guestrooms with outside balcony,” Negrin said. But after visiting his own apartment building’s basement gym, Negrin decided to move the hotel’s fitness center to the top of the building—a plan that he believes improves the overall experience for guests. “The floor-to-ceiling windows are more meaningful on upper floors,” he said.

To maximize the views, Negrin had the design team increase the ceiling height beyond that of the other floors. “Since this is a new construction, once we decided to design it that way, it was not any more complicated than anywhere else in the building—except perhaps the traffic flow in and out of the gym and to the outdoor spaces.” 

The space does get more heat from the outside, Negrin acknowledged. “We have tinted and energy-efficient windows to minimize the impact and we had to boost [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] capacity from our initial design.” 

How to create a rooftop pool

Rooftop pools are decidedly popular, but can also present their own kinds of challenges for architects and designers.

“There's a lot of structural engineering and cost associated with building [a pool] up on an upper floor,” Nodler said about the rooftop pool at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel in Nashville.

The first challenge is the price of putting something heavy high up, Nodler said. “Normally, [a pool] is on the first or ground floor just because of the cost.” It is decidedly more expensive to build an elevated pool, she explained, because the structure has to accommodate the weight of the water and the pool itself—as well as the people on the deck. It's much easier to adjust for this weight on lower floors, and less expensive as a result.

The next challenge was determining how high the floors below needed to be in order to accommodate the pool above. “We had to be mindful when setting the heights of the floors underneath to make sure you had enough height to accommodate the depths of that pool, plus the structure, and you could still use the space underneath it,” Nodler said. That had to be a consideration from the first day, she said—“when you lay out the building, that that has to be accommodated for, so you can use the floor underneath it and that's not wasted space.”

And then there are the drains for the water, which need to run through the building to the ground. “You have to accommodate that space throughout the hotel as well,” Nodler said. “If it's going through the rooftop all the way, you have to have the draining all the way down to the ground floor.” 

As such, it is easier to put a pool on top of a new-build rooftop that can be custom-designed to handle these requirements. “We had to work around where the shafts would be that the plumbing would be running through, but I think the aesthetic of having the great views and the location outweighs any of the [challenges]. We just worked it into the design from day one, so it didn't really affect what we were doing.”