Having a terrace is definitely a perk! It gives you a refreshing, natural space for relaxation, time with loved ones and more. However, if you’re a first-time terrace owner, it can be tough to know where to start when it comes to terrace safety; open exposure and height also come with risks most indoor apartment dwellers don’t ever have to plan for.
While you dream up ways to beautify your outdoor space, here are 20 easy ways to minimize risk in the process—helping you create a terrace that’s as safe as it is lovely.
This luxe roof terrace in TriBeCa has a sturdy parapet wall to stop trips and tumbles.
DURING DESIGN: TAKE STEPS FOR SAFETY
Know your weight loads. Hire a structural engineer to evaluate how much weight the roof can take and how it should be distributed. Some roofs aren’t built to hold the heavy loads that come with terraces—the load your terrace can bear should be the main concern when planning features and décor. In cold climates, snow will sometimes double the load in winter; heavily planted terraces can also drastically fluctuate in weight depending how much water the plants retain.
Let your engineering team take the lead. Architects and structural engineers can advise you on what special features you’ll need to support your terrace and where to place them, including roof reinforcements, fireproofing, and dedicated runoff for rain and snow. NEVER try to install a terrace without working closely with experienced architects and engineers.
Plan for extreme weather conditions. Consider the weather conditions your terrace is exposed to and design it to accommodate them. Is there direct sun all day? Is there ambient heat generated by nearby structures or mechanicals? Hot reflections from glass buildings? High winds? Your design should take measures to ensure the safety of terrace users and people in the vicinity and account for all possible microclimate factors.
Safely work around mechanicals and utilities. Before construction, it’s important to check with your building, local officials and appropriate experts to ensure all mechanicals and utilities can be safely moved or worked around. In your design, make sure they’re readily accessible behind working doors that close or behind fences, as well as set apart from the recreational space and any place where children could play. If mechanicals are closer than 15’ to the edge or drop-off, follow OSHA guidelines and install a high, sturdy railing to protect workers (and, by extension, yourself).
Always install railings and walls. All terraces should have a raised, firm barrier marking edges—most experts recommend a 4-foot-high barrier at minimum. Waist-high thick parapet walls are a great option, but railings can also do the trick. Aluminum railings are light and often the most aesthetically appealing choice, but they’re not as strong as steel railings, which are now available with rust-proof coatings. Cable railings require regular tightening, which many people forget or are unqualified to do, although self-tightening cable railings are sometimes available. For those concerned about obstructed views, some steel railings are now made with thick glass paneling (rather than steel bars) for minimal view obstruction—though not as strong as metal rods, glass paneling will at the very least provide some protection near edges and drop-offs.
Select non-flammable, slip-resistant decking and flooring. Check with your local building code to make sure your flooring or decking is safe and compliant—for example, due to fire risk, NYC only allows 20% of roof to be covered by wooden decking. It’s best to choose flooring that will wear well in many weather types and isn’t prone to cracking or pooling water in temperature/moisture extremes—this can mean some types of wood and stone aren’t safe for terrace usage.
Ensure you choose adequate lighting. Although diffuse decorative lighting and string lights are attractive, they don’t provide bright, clear light. Have at least one large wall-mounted flood light reliable illumination. It’s also a good idea to have lit bollards set along paths, skylights and walls to mark safe places to walk in case of snow, rain, or other visibility-reducing conditions.
Weatherproof everything. Your terrace is exposed to all the elements 24/7, 365. Indoor furnishings and finishes or even products that claim to be “versatile” in usage usually won’t last long. Choose weatherproofed wood, rust-proofed metal and hard-wearing stone for flooring and furniture. Make sure your floors are splinter-proof, puddle-proof, and even slip-proof whenever possible. Ensure your furniture, railing and accessories come with sun-proof coatings—UV light can degrade plastics and cause some coatings to crack, letting in water and making some products slippery or prone to breakage. Anti-moisture coatings are also important, even on metals—depending on the material used, rain, fog, dew, and ice/snow can seep into materials and begin corroding and even cracking them.
Pet-proof and child-proof as necessary. While there are steps you can take after your terrace is built to keep both human and furry loved ones safe, build features into your terrace whenever you can to preemptively reduce risk of accidents or falls. These features can include child locks on utilities and supplies, un-climbable walls, mesh screening across all gaps or openings, locking exterior doors, non-poisonous plants and more.
This terrace in Long Island City has a clear shield below the railing—it’s possible to pair safety with unobstructed views!
AFTER INSTALLATION: MINIMIZE YOUR RISK EXPOSURE
Schedule regular inspections. Make sure you understand what inspections your building and local government require. Even if your inspection requirements are lenient, it’s still a good idea to have your terrace regularly looked over by structural experts and to keep documentation of these inspections handy in case anything happens—this proactive approach could help protect you if disaster strikes.
Make fire safety a priority. Have a fire extinguisher, a bucket of water and/or a hose available at all times, especially if you have cooking equipment or fireplaces. In most places (New York City included), this is legally required whenever there is a grill, barbecue or open flame present.
Plant hardy, heavy greenery. Conifers, weeping trees, and multi-stem trees are better than lollipop-shaped trees for terrace landscaping because they’re less likely to blow over. Keep in mind that plants and trees that excessively shed leaves or needles could put the terrace at risk of slips or fire (and also annoy neighbors during seasonal shedding). For ground landscaping, firmly-rooted vines and low-lying plants are the least likely to blow away or whip around. Resilient, safe trees include junipers, southern magnolias, black and white pines and cherry trees. Good plants that won’t shed leaves include hostas, honeysuckle, creeping jenny and boxwoods.
Secure your door. Make sure your door is heavy and closes firmly. Consider installing a code or lock on your terrace door—it’s important for keeping kids and unauthorized people off the terrace, as well as for preventing unauthorized intruders coming from the roof into your apartment. To prevent accidental lockouts, consider having an alarm system or button that will let you call down into the apartment, to the doorman or to the authorities. The buddy system also works—check in with a partner or friend if you’re going on the roof alone, and check back in when you return.
Cover your pool or Jaccuzzi. This is a no-brainer. Pool covers are usually required for insurance and liability purposes, and they help you in multiple ways. Not only do they keep debris, dirt and other nastiness from blowing into your water and causing wear and tear—properly-secured covers also hugely contribute to pool safety, especially if kids or pets use the terrace.
Weigh down your furniture. Metal or heavy wood outdoor furniture is the best choice for terraces. These hefty accessories won’t tip or fly off your terrace in extreme conditions, and they also usually wear better and live longer than their daintier counterparts. Bolt furniture down whenever you can. During particularly bad weather or high winds, tie furniture down or bring it inside to make sure it doesn’t cause accidents.
Don’t create accidental “sails.” Umbrellas and shading implements should be made with slits so wind can pass through without lifting them into the air. Umbrellas should also be heavy and bolted into place whenever possible to prevent a “sail” effect, causing highly dangerous tilting or flight. Any linens or covers should tie securely into place or be put away after use—no one wants a throw blanket floating away in the wind!
Treat and maintain your wood. If you’ve chosen ipe, teak or other common outdoor woods, you’ll need to regularly oil and treat your wood to prevent wear. Severely worn and warped wood can crack and splinter—hugely risky, especially if you use wooden decking or wooden chairs.
Always supervise kids and pets. Children should never, ever, ever be on the terrace or balcony unsupervised. While you can take preemptive safety steps (like pool covers, walls and railings), kids are precocious and unable to assess risk as well as adults—terraces can be wonderful places for play, but only when supervised. Pets should also never be on the terrace alone. Cats are prone to climbing and exploration and can be especially risky to bring outside. Constant supervision, thinly slatted high walls and strong mesh covers for any openings are a good ways to keep kids and pets from getting into risky situations while they enjoy the terrace.
Have strict terrace rules for staff, maintenance workers and guests. Take new people on a guided tour to make sure they know about all hazards on the terrace—especially ones that could be hidden in inclement weather (such as skylights, low or weak walls and railings, areas that get unexpectedly slippery, and more). You’re responsible for the safety of others on your terrace, so guests shouldn’t be on the terrace without your knowledge and express permission—take time to decide what you’re comfortable with in terms of guest terrace usage, and make those expectations clear. You also carry much of the responsibility for worker safety while they are accessing mechanicals or doing routine maintenance, even if they’re present on behalf of the building—make sure there are no drop-offs or trip risks in their work areas, and set a firm standard with maintenance and utility workers that they should use appropriate harnessing measures if they can’t stay an OSHA-approved 15’ away from the roof’s edge at all times.
Have first aid handy and plan for emergencies. Keep basic medical supplies actually on the roof deck or immediately available inside the door—if there’s a major accident, it may be tricky to get an injured person down your stairs or off the terrace, so have basic ways to treat burns, cuts and more readily available in case you have to wait for help. Make sure your insurance covers accidents on your terrace (it should) and make sure your apartment can be entered by emergency personnel if/when necessary.
These terraces in Chelsea use multiple types of fencing, weather-appropriate plants, and other features to ensure long-term beauty, enjoyment and safety.