While privileged with a dynamic view of the trees and skyline, the homeowners of this 1890s row house in Brookline seldom used their roof deck.
“It was accessible only by a ladder-type stair on the unused fourth-floor attic space that led to a hatch,” explains Colin Flavin, founding principal of Boston’s Flavin Architects. Not only was accessing the roof deck uncomfortable, the space itself didn’t feel safe. “The homeowners were always afraid their child might fall,” says Flavin.
After seeing a contemporary rooftop space Flavin designed in the South End, the owners contacted the architect to give their deck a similar appeal. “They wanted a proper way to get up to the roof, and a safe and protected place to hang out,” Flavin says.
A long permitting process followed the initial design phase since creating a new stairway and landing with full head height meant an increase in the building’s floor space.
The home’s fourth floor was converted to a more usable recreation room where Flavin installed a steel-and-glass staircase that has a spare, contemporary feel. While much larger than the former ladder to the roof deck, it takes up less space than a traditional-style staircase. Against an exposed brick wall, the airy staircase gives the home’s top floor a loft-like feel.
The 14-by-20-foot roof deck has a modest footprint, says Flavin. “But it really feels like there’s a lot of living space.”
“One of the things about designing rooftop spaces is that people ask for glass handrails around the perimeter so as not to obstruct the view,” says Flavin. “But that’s counterintuitive. It’s really nice to have a sense of containment so you feel comfortable, safe, and somewhat protected.”
Here, inspired by a rooftop space that Modernist pioneer Le Corbusier designed in Germany, Flavin created a mahogany railing and trellis structure that goes around the interior of the deck. “It doesn’t block the view, it actually frames the view and gives a sense of scale to things,” he says. A built-in bench runs along one wall, and there is ample space for a table when al fresco meals are in order.
The landing is encased by a structure with glass doors on two sides allowing sunlight and air to flow down into the fourth floor. A large overhang allows the doors to be open during light rainstorms. Building codes dictated that noncombustible materials be used on the structure, so cement cladding was used along the edges of the doors and interior of the roof. “The cladding has the look of clapboards so you don’t notice that it’s actually cement,” says Flavin.
Since attached 19th-century row houses only had windows on the front and back, common practice was to place a “skylight” that opened in the floor above the main stairway to spill light from the top floor down. “The skylight on the fourth floor felt really dangerous, someone could have fallen through it,” says Flavin who opted to replace the aging component with a blue tinted fixed glass floor inset into the oak floor. Like the rooftop pavilion, the sleek design element adds modern flair to the gracious antique home.