As more people choose to live in dense urban environments, the latest hot-ticket residential amenity has nothing to do with marble countertops or on-call concierges: It’s outdoor space, the scarcest of all commodities in an environment where, regardless of grandeur, distance from nature can take a toll on quality of life.
Outdoor spaces are showing up everywhere: In towering vertical gardens, oversize balconies, communal exercise spaces, expanded courtyards, green roofs, and bridges. Sometimes areas are carved out by necessity—as part of master plans or public initiatives—but more often they’re designed (often in coordination with landscape architects) as a way to draw new clients looking for something different than the usual sealed box in the sky.
The demand for outdoor and green space aligns with several emerging trends: Increased environmental awareness, a culture of public versus private priorities, more need for serenity, and changes in tastes in privacy and aesthetics. But more than anything, people just know it’s something they want and developers and architects are responding.
“Our spaces and neighborhoods were once geared to human scale and public space, and we seem to be going back to that,” said Eran Chen, founder of ODA New York, which is designing creative private and public outdoor spaces across the city. “In New York it’s very difficult to carve out space. But does that mean we have to compromise the quality of our experiences?”
Chen says that the most effective tool is a knowledge of zoning requirements and an ability to reshape building envelopes, creating what he calls “vertical villages” by capturing open and shared spaces when facades are shifted, lifted, or otherwise morphed. “You can put together more than a flat facade,” he said.
Outside of exploiting zoning laws, firms across the country are employing advanced construction techniques to create larger and more complex outdoor spaces. They’re building greenery in leftover and ignored zones, and they’re greatly expanding tried and true methods like green roofs, cantilevers, and patios.
According to L.A. architect Lorcan O’Herlihy, who has implemented an array of techniques to incorporate public space into his projects—from terraced green spaces to adjacent pocket parks—the upfront cost and effort pay substantial dividends. “If you create an outdoor space it makes for a better building, and for a great return,” he said.
While balconies, roof terraces, and other private outdoor spaces have long played a role in dense residential living, they’re getting bigger, greener, and more sophisticated than ever. In many cases old typologies no longer apply: Balconies are morphing into private outdoor rooms, outdoor is merging with indoor, and roof decks are filling with amenities. Spending time outside is more enticing than ever, no matter the climate.
ODA’s 2222 Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, Queens, shifts its exterior bays in and out, creating voids and projections that become large 13- by 7-foot outdoor areas. The reconfiguring, Chen said, opened up units’ views and created twice the exterior surface area of a conventional layout. The firm’s East 44th Street tower features covered outdoor spaces in gaps stretched between floors, decreasing the building’s wind load and creating radical, enclosed gardens for each unit. Each apartment will get its own 1,400-square-foot terrace, with two such spaces per floor.
“New York is very tight, and you have to be very clever how you work with the constraints,” said Hannes Schafelner, an associate at Zaha Hadid Architects. The firm’s 520 West 28th Street building overlooking the High Line uses its oversize balconies (containing large glass sliders and flooring ontinuing from the interior) to help the developer provide as much square footage as possible. “Regulations say you can build over the building line by 50 percent of the length of the building. So these balconies are 50 percent of the length of the building,” he said.
Such supersized balconies and private exterior spaces are not exceptions. At Foster + Partners’ Faena House in Miami Beach, wraparound terraces are so big that the firm calls them “verandas in the sky.” Balconies at Architecture Outfit’s Sorting House in Chelsea range from 225 to 600 square feet, while the roof deck has a shared area and private terraces on the same floor. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard Street, also nicknamed the “Jenga Building” for its wildly varying staggered glass balconies and spatial configurations. The oversized cantilevers—which vary in size throughout—don’t just give the building an unusual look, but also provide extra large private spaces for tenants in the sky. In total the project has about 16,000 square feet of balcony space.
Rooftop apartments have room for even larger private amenities. Foster’s 551 West 21st Street has its own 61-foot-long “Sky Pool” with an infinity edge that makes it seem like it’s draining straight into the river. Large rows of hedges provide privacy and add a pastoral touch.
As residents get more comfortable sharing space with their neighbors, collective spaces are changing radically, with green roofs, amenity areas, patios, and other common zones becoming more expansive and incorporative. Landscape architects are taking on a greater role in shaping such projects and architects are finding creative areas—between floors, around perimeters, and so on—to make public.
ODA’s 10 Montieth Street’s green roof slopes down over five floors to give residents on all floors direct access. Bjarke Ingels Group’s VIA, located at West 57th Street, is a hybrid between a perimeter block and a high rise. While its northeast corner juts upward like a skyscraper, the other three corners remain low, exposing its courtyard—a green space that the firm sees as an extension of the Hudson River Park—and inner units to light and views. Hadid’s 520 West 28th Street public spaces—carved out from necessary site setbacks near the High Line—are highlighted by a ground floor plaza (developed with landscape firm Future Green) where walls and floors merge. Plantings are creatively embedded into walls and ground planes fold upward. Nearby, in Chelsea, Isay Weinfeld’s Jardim creates a lush 40- by 60-foot common area planted with mature trees and bushes.
In Los Angeles, O’Herlihy’s SL11024 building, adjacent to Richard Neutra’s Strathmore Apartments, has a stepped combination of green roofs and patios dotted with planters that are designed to have the look and feel of green roofs without the upkeep. All the terraces are close enough to the street, said O’Herlihy, that they contribute to public life in the neighborhood. In L.A.’s Arts District, Michael Maltzan has installed parks not only in obvious places like One Santa Fe’s courtyard and flexible parking lot, but under and on top of bridges between structures. He likens the project’s design to master planning just as much as architecture. In Santa Monica, OMA’s Plaza at Santa Monica zig-zags back and forth, exposing more surface area and maximum amount of public green roof space.
Neighbors are not just willing to hang out together, but they’re ready to share common amenities too—no matter how highbrow. 56 Leonard, for example, features 17,000 square feet of amenity spaces on its ninth and tenth floors, including a 75-foot pool, a 25-seat indoor-outdoor screening room, a private dining room, and a children’s playroom, among other things. Perhaps the most ambitious public amenity area belongs to SHoP’s 626 First Avenue, a pair of New York towers whose connecting three-level bridge contains a pool in which users can swim from one end to the next. The space also contains a gym that provides tenants with unimpeded views of the East River.
“The most sustainable thing you can do is build density near mass transit. But it would be a dystopian world without great design,” said SHoP principal Gregg Pasquarelli.
DECORATIVE OUTDOOR SPACES
Sometimes outdoor spaces simply provide a visual amenity, turning green elements into large art pieces or architectural details.
Jardim, for instance, incorporates plantings onto each of its balconies, enhancing privacy and creating a natural environment for those outside, akin to planter boxes in European cities. Foster’s 551 West 21st Street includes a 20-foot-tall green wall at its drive-in entry court, and its mid-floor terrace is heavily planted to provide greenery and privacy for residents. Hadid’s High Line building has a sculpture park that is not accessible to the public, but provides an amenity for residents and passersby on the High Line.
Even a courtyard can serve as a visual-only amenity from time to time. Morris Adjmi’s Schumacher (a former printing loft building in Noho converted into 20 condominium residences) and Sterling Mason (a 33-unit condominium composed of a restored warehouse and a matching addition) feature enclosed spaces by Deborah Nevins and Ken Smith that are inaccessible to tenants, but provide a peaceful viewing area.
“They didn’t want noisy courtyards,” said Adjmi, who admitted, ”I didn’t really understand that decision completely.” Adjmi said that pretty much every building his firm is working on has a significant green component, from a green roof and lawn at 282 South 5th Street in Williamsburg to Atlantic Plumbing in Washington, D.C., a residence with a planting strip on every side of the building, a green roof, and green walls.
It doesn’t happen enough, but some residences give back with open spaces for the general public. Often parks are demanded by planners as a tradeoff for large scale projects, sometimes they come about as a result of Plaza Bonuses, which are designed to incentivize public space, and other times they’re offered by developers as a symbiotic tool.
Thanks to its neighborhood’s master plan, SHoP’s First Avenue project incorporates a huge public space designed by SCAPE Studio that carries its language into the building through a 100-foot-tall breezeway connecting directly to the park. O’Herlihy, known for creating a public pocket as part of his Formosa 1140 in West Hollywood, is developing a similar project (its details are still under wraps) in which the city of West Hollywood leases the land from the owners. It’s a model that has proven very successful, pleasing both tenants and local residents with more public space.
In Chicago, Studio Gang’s massive Wanda Vista Towers will incorporate public space—designed by Olin—on both its street and riverfront levels, while nearby Perkins+Will’s Riverline will contain a river walk, retail plaza, park, children’s playground, river taxi access, kayak launch, and riverfront amphitheater.