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Designing While Disguising: Thoughtful Solutions for Hiding Unsightly Utilities on Your Terrace

Designing While Disguising: Thoughtful Solutions for Hiding Unsightly Utilities on Your Terrace

Designing While Disguising: Thoughtful Solutions for Hiding Unsightly Utilities on Your Terrace

The Terrace Experts recently sat down with renowned landscape designer and horticulturist Christian Duvernois and his Design Director Jon Fouskaris to talk about one of the trickiest aspects of beautifying a terrace: working around large, ugly and immovable building utility structures. How do you create relaxing terrace spaces that disguise A/C condenser units, pipes and vents while still allowing access for maintenance? Christian is a master at solving these spatial puzzles—he was kind enough to provide us with three examples of recent design solutions he and his team devised for clients across Manhattan. 

Realizing the potential of your terrace or rooftop garden is an exciting step in the design process. However, it’s easy to let permanent obstructions like vent shafts and mechanical units interfere with your creative (and literal) vision. These protrusions are major eyesores, preventing you from creating the meaningful outdoor living space you desire. Here are some creative examples of how unsightly elements can actually be transformed into elegant design features, benefiting your terrace design rather than hindering it.

Below are three case studies by NYC-based landscape design and management firm, Christian Duvernois Landscape/Studio (CDL/S).

Zen Escape / Upper East Side, New York, NY

BEFORE

AFTER

Shown in the above images, the same problematic space has been entirely transformed. CDL/S has screened the existing vents, pipes, and mechanical units with wood-framed, translucent plexiglass structures in the style of Japanese shōji. These now-disguised utilities, turned into focal elements, contribute to the serene feeling of the space. Strewn with apparent obstacles, this 1000-square-foot private rooftop could be seen to many as a lost cause. The permanence of the rooftop utilities is, without argument, distracting and seemingly limits design potential. However, it’s essential to not let common rooftop elements discourage you from achieving a high-quality design.

Rather than being perceived merely as constraints, common rooftop utilities can be seen as space-defining opportunities. In the following two images, the same Upper East Side penthouse rooftop is shown in a new light, literally! The shōji structures are designed with open tops to allow for adequate air exchange. They are also multi-functional—they not only screen and protect existing building rooftop vents and pipes, but also illuminate at night. Together, both features create a series of intimate spaces within the greater rooftop space.

BEFORE

AFTER (photo credit: Christian Erroi)

Skyline Arboretum / West Village, New York, NY

 Air conditioning condenser units are ubiquitous obstructions on New York City rooftops. Not only are they eyesores, but they also create a loud and constant humming noise.  The relaxing environment on any well-designed roof or terrace garden can easily be ruined by the often loud and irritating sound coming from a nearby A/C system.

In this example, CDL/S has entirely screened a grouping of A/C condenser units with an ipé-clad sound buffer fence fronted by a series of perennial grass planters.  The barrier not only hides the view of the units, but also blocks the constant humming noise. This is achieved through a series of materials of varying density layered back-to-back (including sound attenuation board, rigid insulation and marine-grade plywood) which break up traveling sound vibrations. Furthermore, a 45-degree angle bending back off the top of the structure refracts any remaining sound waves coming from the AC units away from the patio space. Now, the only audible distractions on this private green roof are birdsongs in the garden.

BEFORE

AFTER

West Village Co-op Communal Green Roof / West Village, New York, NY

When dealing with open rooftop conditions, it is important to balance the design of these screening features with unobstructed city skyline views. With unique 360-degree sight lines to the city from this West Village co-op building,  CDL/S’s rooftop design (seen below) maximizes views, while at the same time forming subspaces between scattered vents and exhaust pipes.

BEFORE

AFTER (photo credit: Christian Erroi)

Once again, as demonstrated here in the project photos, what once was a hindrance was neatly transformed into an opportunity.  The existing utilities of the rooftop became a vital geometry to the overall design. CDL/S designed and constructed a system of built-in cedar planters to visually obscure the mushroom vents and structure the division of spaces. Tall exhaust pipes are treated with the same intermittent wrapping of cedar boards around powder-coated aluminum frames to form light posts that abstractly play off of the forms of the surrounding skyscrapers and the scenery beyond.

BEFORE

AFTER (photo credit: Christian Erroi)

The Terrace Experts welcome questions and comments.  Please contact us on our contact page and to reach out directly to Christian Duvernois Landscape Studio or to see more of their amazing landscape terrace and garden design work, go to their website www.christianduvernois.com.