Lofty Gardens

A garden in the sky is a basic contradiction of terms but in the urban world of roof gardens in cities around the world it is becoming a delightful reality. For the empty nester who wants to downsize or keep a place in the city while retiring to the country; for the urban professional who wants to live in the core of a city's entertainment district; or for the new home- based entrepreneur; loft living is a viable vital alternative to high-rise apartment buildings. Balcony gardens become an important adjunct to their urban lifestyles offering a little bit of nature in the heart of the city.

Lofts are a relatively new phenomenon of downtime city living in major centres across North America and Europe. In the 1960's Jane Jacob's, urban activitist and journalist, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This work impacted on urban planners across North America and slowly the redevelopment of downtown cores has progressed. The goal for urban planners is to keep downtown core areas vital and alive, not just a place in which to work and then escape to the bedroom communities in suburbia, leaving the city to the criminal elements at night. Real neighbourhoods, people in residence, vibrant urban life, day and night, keep cities healthy and safe. Part of the change in city planning was the new reticence to tear down old buildings that were no longer useful but were an intergral part of the urban fabric that defined the architecture of a particular city or era. A growing campaign began that involved the renovation of old, often non-conforming, industrial buildings into residential living spaces. Originally many of the loft living spaces were not legal as planning approvals and building codes designed for areas with plenty of parking and easier access were not always conducive to renovating older inner city buildings. As urban developers saw the market was there they found ways to build legal lofts and many pockets of loft buildings are now being developed in most major cities.

The first legal loft project in Toronto was designed and built by Mitchell & Associates. 41 Shanly Street, a factory converted into twelve residential units, won the Ontario Renewals award in 1981 for its innovative design and concept. The roof gardens were a literal oasis in the city for the residents. Robert Mitchell, having designed and built more than 12 loft projects since the early ‘80's, has seen a transition in the use of outdoor space by loft owners over the years. Gardening as a hobby is definitely on the upswing and many of his clients want more than just a few planted pots on their balconies. He says that over the years he has seen more of a blurring of distinction between outdoor and indoor space, with the outdoor area becoming an extension of the indoor.

As loft owners extend their living spaces to the outdoor garden, they often implement strong architectural features for both form and function. With the roof garden comes the need for shade since there is little if any natural foliage coverage available. Sun screening can be obtained by pergolas, canopies, brise-soleil, arbours, or trellises to provide filtered shade and structures for climbing vines. These forms can also visually define areas for eating, sitting, etc. Wood columns can be used to provide a colonnade that speaks of ancient formal walkways and provides a modern urban setting with the bright city lights as the dramatic backdrop. Like the planting of perennials, stone and wood elements provide a sense of permanence to the roof deck that says the owners are here to stay.

Because each project is unique and most units within a project are similarly individual, outdoor spaces tend to be custom designed to suit the building and the clients. Projects have included the renovation of an old church annex where decks were carved out of the old building. Sometimes there are patio gardens for the lower units with wrought iron fencing and fast growing vines for privacy. Mostly, though, the shape of the outdoor space is somewhat linear, reminiscent of the interiors, long with soaring ceilings. This rectangular feature can be used to advantage by defining a garden-like setting for sitting, reading, sunbathing and a dining/entertainment area off patio doors for ease of serving guests. Deck walls are usually made of brick or concrete so the overall effect is of a room outside. With the many weatherproof fabrics available today, there is the ability to create a room outside, with soft couch and chairs, that literally expands the indoor space. Since most residential units are sold on a square floor price, any outdoor living space is a bonus feature to higher priced urban homes.

Water gardening, like the growing phenomenon in home gardening, is becoming more important to loft owners. Although roof gardens often have a hose bib for outdoor access to water for plant maintenance, many new loft gardens now feature strong water features like streams, waterfalls, fountains. Besides the soothing sound of running water and the focal point created by the water element, there is a functional advantage to the sound as it help obliterate the noise of the city and creates an oasis atmosphere for the roof or balcony garden.

Since lofts are owned and not rented, residents often want a more permanent perennial garden much like the homeowner creates. Roof gardens challenge the designer to come up with an environment in which plants can survive freezing winter conditions. Shrubs and small trees are often planted in built-in boxes that can be so heavy it is important to get a structural engineer's analysis of the weight created. Mr. Mitchell, an engineer and urban planner by profession, has designed many custom planters for clients. The larger the planter the better chance the plants have of surviving winter temperatures but this size is also a factor in the overall weight. On the market are reasonably lightweight prepackaged planting mixtures containing combinations of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. The bottom of the planter needs good drainage with holes to prevent root rot, a barrier screen to keep the soil from being washed out in rain and during watering, and a couple of inches of drainage material like pebbles, clay, etc. or lightweight styrofoam chips that are indestructible and don't add weight to the planter. The inside walls are fitted with 2" of rigid insulation but the bottom is left to allow the heat from the building to leach up into the planter. Heating cables, laid underneath the soil, are controlled thermostatically so that they are turned on on the coldest days to prevent the ground from getting cold enough to kill the roots.

Annual plants, a quick fix to brighten any outdoor space, have a place in most home and professional gardens, and are particularly useful to the roof top gardener in hanging baskets, window boxes and pots. Special care for hanging baskets needs to be taken as winds up high can quickly dry them out. A water wand, a 2' long aluminum hose attachment with soft spray head to allow watering up high, is ideal for thoroughly soaking baskets every day. Using soil moisture retention granules, small synthetic pellets that absorb water and slowly release it into the soil as needed, in baskets and pots helps to reduce the drying out problem. For loft owners, often young urban professionals, who might have never experienced the joy of gardening, annuals can be the first step toward a fascination with gardening. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing something you planted actually grow and thrive. What might start out one year as a few annual pots can quickly spread into full perennial gardens complete with trees and waterfalls.

There is something extremely relaxing about going out into the garden, even if it's 100 feet up in the air, after a long day at the office. More and more urban loft owners are creating a little bit of garden heaven in the sky.


Mitchell Lofts
architectural elements


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