Words: Anne Schauffer

 Worldwide, as more people try to access living space near work and play amenities, densification is the buzz word. Smaller spaces, closer together, often leaves little room for that calming green space you’d like and you need for sanity. Greening up roofs or balconies, extends living areas, and provides an opportunity for connection with the environment.

Visual softening of hot, hard surfaces is an important aspect of greening up roofs and balconies. Take a look at commercial office roofs in town centres which have gone green, and it’s clear their action has a broader impact than imagined – employees, employers and all city dwellers benefit.

Advantages of rooftop gardens

Creating a rooftop garden needs a professional – consideration of the weight, perfecting the waterproofing, soil depth, irrigation… and more.

Justin Sam of Rooftop Landscapes says, “It’s obviously easier to green up new builds, as the building can be designed with the roof garden in mind, but there’s usually scope for some greening on the majority of roofs.”

Aesthetics aside, a green growing roof can be highly productive – organic planting can produce lush vegetable and herb gardens, but there are other advantages too.

Beyond aesthetics

A green rooftop has the ability to reduce storm water run-off and its impact, because the water is absorbed and used by the plant life. A green roof also creates an effective sound barrier, and depending on what is planted, absorbs varying degrees of noise.

And cooling and heating? A green roof absorbs heat slowly during the day, and gradually releases it overnight, which has a positive effect on both cooling and heating systems. Sam says, “Green roofs even out temperature variations, lowering dependencies on air-conditioning. We have systems which allow the installation of solar PV panels above green roofs, and international research has shown that panels installed in this way operate more efficiently as the green roof lowers local temperatures.”

Sustainability is key. The reclaimed space naturally becomes a haven for birds, bees and butterflies.

What about maintenance?

“Gardens on roofs are much like their terrestrial counterparts, requiring maintenance such as weeding, fertilising, general plant care as well as irrigation maintenance,” says Sam. But landscapers choose rooftop plants carefully, to limit maintenance – water-wise plants such as succulents grow well and are popular, and drip irrigation is usually installed. “Aesthetically, grasses usually provide more height, making the garden more visible from ground-level. Our clients delight in their grasses swaying in the wind. Larger plants and trees can provide privacy from neighbours.”

Green balconies

Sam says, “Green balconies provide useful elevated garden spaces. We build customised spaces that express our clients love for nature, blue skies and the outdoors.”

Whether you create a fully green space, or only partial, it needs planning. You can deck it, create a growing wall, even fully mirror a wall to visually increase the space or reflect a beautiful tree. Greg Mark of Gregory Mark approaches the design of outdoor spaces architecturally, with strong focus on furniture layouts and finishes, much as you would an interior space. “Always start with a to-scale garden plan and clear vison for the space, especially when working within the confines of a fixed space like a balcony or veranda terrace. Scale is everything!”

If budget is a factor, he suggests, “Work with existing materials, and complement them as best you can. Most of what you see in a balcony space is vertical (walls), and borrowed views over the city or even trees – look carefully at how they affect the space.” For a luxurious sea-view apartment in Umhlanga, Mark says, “Keep it simple – less is more. Clean lines frame – and don’t obstruct – the ocean views. We kept the planting palette simple and uncomplicated. Focal points are always important, so we installed a pair of dolphin bronzes under-planted with grasses which simulated the waves.”

Work with the space, not against it, and it’s astonishing how much value can be added to an apartment or home.