“Chicago is a very industrial city, so it’s helpful to have outdoor spaces where people can gather,” remarks Hana Ishikawa, design principal at Chicago’s site design group ltd., the firm that performed The Lofts at River East’s rooftop landscape architecture. “Roof decks on apartment buildings are very popular in Chicago and they’re becoming increasingly elaborate. This renovation has beautiful loft units and it really needed a nice roof deck to complement them.”
The Lofts at River East is a 6-story, 547,000-square-foot mixed-use redevelopment originally constructed a century ago as part of the Pugh Terminal Warehouse, a wholesale product exhibition center that was relegated to a warehouse space after construction of the Chicago Merchandise Mart. It was converted into offices and remained commercial space for decades, but its rich history gives the structure a unique feature: It is 625-feet long and 120feet wide.
To create luxury loft apartments, the architect wanted to move the 6-story building’s main ductwork and air-handling units to the roof. The decking for the rooftop’s 10,000 square feet of amenity space had to span over the mechanical and electrical systems, and the building’s wood timbers and planks could not carry the additional load. The structure had massive wooden columns, however, so the team extended the columns and installed aluminum decking framed on a steel structure.
“The roof deck has varying elevations dictated by the height of the systems below. With the weight of the gardens and amenity spaces, it would have been structurally problematic and expensive to make them all the same height,” Ishikawa explains. “It’s a pretty unusual circumstance to have a range of grade changes, so that was difficult at times, as well as coordinating elements to line up with existing features, like doorways.”
Ishikawa’s team and the project architect decided to use the grade changes to their advantage and delineated the varying planes as outdoor “rooms”. “The changing levels make the spaces interesting but we didn’t want the design to feel forced,” Ishikawa recalls. “Rather than having one space simply drop down into another, we used the landscaping to blur the lines.” For example, between the Central Passive Garden and the sundeck that lies 1 1/2-feet below it, the team extended a large planter bed and used the increased soil depths to add taller plant life with a deeper root structure. This makes the two separate rooms appear more contiguous.
From the roof deck, views to the south include Lake Michigan, the Ogden Slip canal and dock, and Lake Shore Drive. A 3-acre park lies to the north, and gleaming downtown towers are visible on the north, east and west sides. The owner, who enjoys outdoor entertaining, had an ambitious list of amenities he wanted the deck to contain. The roof deck includes gardens, seating and dining areas, a sundeck, two fire pits, grilling stations and an outdoor movie theater.
As site design group and the architect collaborated on a layout to accommodate the owner’s wish list, they made clearly conscious choices based on the available views. The bigger amenity spaces, like the Central Passive Garden, sundeck, larger fire pit and outdoor theater’s expansive grassy area, all open to southern views of the water. The north side feels more intimate with two wet bars, seating areas and a smaller fire pit.
Sloped walkways ensure the entire roof deck is ADA accessible. Knowing that the outdoor space was meant to enhance the residents’ quality of life, the designers carved out the deck to offer versatile experiences for groups and individuals.
“We really liked the idea of diverse spaces and even partitioned some areas off with different characteristics conducive to small or communal gatherings, as well as places for people to be alone,” Ishikawa says.