Showering on a Manhattan rooftop: It might sound like a fantasy only Alfred Hitchcock could dream up, a case of Psycho-meets-Rear Window. But for an Upper East Side family with three young children, an outdoor shower adds a playful and practical aspect to their terrace. This week, New York landscape designer Billie Cohen reveals how she slotted an outdoor bathing area into a 421-square-foot rooftop space. For the next 48 hours, Billie is available to answer questions about the project, so type away in the comment section below:
The clients asked their designer for a rooftop garden where their three water-loving sons could play on a hot day. Taking the family's lead, Cohen of Billie Cohen, Ltd. involved the boys in the project from the beginning, and their input made it a success. Here's how the project came together.
Photographs courtesy of Billie Cohen, Ltd.
Above: "The children use the terrace for ping pong and other games, so the plants need to be portable," Cohen says. She suggests using multiple small planters to build visual interest and to make each one easier to cart around. In a grouping of oxblood ceramic vessels, she arranged foxglove and Deutzia, both spring bloomers that are a little on the wild and weedy side for a city garden, but the clients favor their unkempt look. "We created a spring-bloom schedule to fit the school year—in summer the family moves east to Long Island."
Above: a schematic plan of the deck shows the entry at bottom left; a fenced area to the immediate right where a skylight needed to be kept exposed; and a storage area through the doorway at left, where furniture, out-of-season pots, and the solar immersion heater for the shower water are stored.
Along the wall of the building at bottom is a trough holding English ivy, grasses, climbing hydrangea, and wisteria—all hardy and vigorous growers against masonry.
Above: Typical of urban rooftops, this one adjoins a neighbor's plot that had not been landscaped. "It was really skanky," says Cohen. "To hide it, we built walls of a stucco-like material that was waterproof, and capped them with galvanized aluminum." Slatted walls and ribbed glass panels were also used, and these elements became the defining materials of the deck. The prominence of architecture over greenery was intentional. "The clients wanted a flexible space that could evolve as their children grew up," Cohen says. "Plants were not necessarily the focus. But they're easy enough to add later."
Above: The shower cascades onto an open ipe wood deck—the goal here being fun, not seclusion. Shower parts were assembled from galvanized steel plumbing pipes, a hanger-shaped pull handle of metal, and an orange plastic dish fitted with a shower head. (For our favorite fittings, see 10 Easy Pieces: Modern Shower Fixtures.)
The children chose the palette for the backspash, composed of Veneto glass tiles from Stone Source. "They also wanted to try planting strawberries," says Cohen, so she filled the container on the north-facing terrace with flowering Styrax japonicus, underplanting with strawberry and the occasional school-project herb.
Above: The aluminum and wood arbor has become a staple of Cohen's terrace gardens. This photograph, taken just after installation, shows its almost Japanese simplicity. In the image below, wisteria crowds the structure and creates privacy—"another level of green," Cohen says. She recommends a combination of vertical and horizontal planes of greenery to create a sense of seclusion.
The potted styrax stopped thriving after three years, and Cohen suspects its root structure may have been the problem. It's since been replaced with Kousa dogwood.
Above: Wisteria has become so prolific that Cohen has to visit the site regularly for "trims." Despite a small plant vocabulary, this city rooftop greens up nicely between spring and fall—prime outdoor-showering season.
(N.B.: Do you feel adventurous? For more of our favorite open air bathing options, see 5 Favorites: Outdoor Bathtubs.)