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3 Tips for Transforming Your Roof Into an Oasis

Transform your barren rooftop into the terrace of your dreams, like this one built by a DIY Montreal couple.

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Marie-Josée Tessier and her husband Marc Lafontaine knew they wanted sole access to the rooftop while they were condo shopping in the Plateau area of central Montreal. This couple, a pair of “hard-core urbanites,” laughs Tessier, didn’t want to mimic their friends by buying a summer cottage outside the city. “All that travel time!” she shuddered. Instead, they envisioned a rooftop terrace that would become their home away from home, but with all the comforts of home.

(Photos: Marie-Josée Tessier, Marc Lafontaine)

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1. Know Your Limits

Though Lafontaine and his brother built the deck, and Tessier built the railing, she strongly recommends consulting with an architect at the get-go.

A local architect should know, or research, local bylaws that can affect the size and structure of a terrace. For instance, in the Plateau it has to be set back far enough not to be seen from street level.

The architect’s plan must also calculate how much weight your roof can hold. (If you don’t hire one, check this with an engineer.) Planning a rooftop garden? Wet earth is heavy; you’ll need to know how extensive yours can be.

Limiting weight was key to Tessier and Lafontaine’s decision to erect an aluminum staircase between their rear balcony and the roof. At a few hundred pounds, the aluminum was a fraction of the weight of steel; the cost, however, was triple.

That determined their deck size. “The staircase was so expensive that we decided to maximize our investment and get the biggest deck we could,” says Tessier. It’s a roomy 650 square feet (32 x 24, with a notch for a skylight) that comprises a lounging area, living room sheltered under a 10 x 12 gazebo (Tessier’s favourite spot), barbecue and steel prep “kitchen” area, dining area, and a shed big enough to accommodate the furniture’s many cushions.

Tessier’s background as an avid DIYer with degrees in both interior design and fine arts helped guide the architect’s plan.

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2. Build a Strong Base

The entire surface rests on 64 pressure-treated wooden pillars on a hard Styrofoam base covered with two layers of marinegrade plywood, for even weight distribution. This saved the hefty
expense of reinforcing the entire roof. Cedar was chosen for both the floor planks and railing, for beauty and longevity.

Tessier’s second piece of advice? Make sure you hook up with a “great” renovation centre. “A lot of places could supply the materials, but not the crane” that hoisted supplies directly onto the roof, she said.

The project, which the couple planned to complete in a couple of weeks, dragged on for about six, with them beavering away all day and into the evening.

Tip: Beware the wind when designing your rooftop. Tessier chose an anchored gazebo to keep it from blowing overboard.

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3. Decorating: the Fun Part

After it was complete, the fun part came: decorating, Tessier’s forte.

She chose a charcoal/pale grey combo for cushions, transforming an old lime-green couch bought at Canadian Tire for a pittance. The cushions, cloaked in Sunbrella fabric, were made thicker and sturdier. Wicker chairs and a dining table have a 10-year guarantee and are made to weather beautifully outdoors.

The easy-care furniture is coupled with plants set in pots with reservoirs: boxwood for screening, which will be trimmed into topiaries; lavender flanking the entrance; and white hydrangeas for the impact of their flower globes and lush greenery. “It’s made our apartment into a home,” says Tessier. “It’s a marriage of indoor and outdoor, which you don’t always have in a condo.”

After having spent one season enjoying the terrace, there are two things that the couple have decided they need but didn’t plan for initially: on-site water and electricity. A plumber will be called to insert a pipe up through an abandoned chimney so that they can install an outdoor water source, and an electrician will be hired to get rid of snaking orange extension cords.

When their friends and family flocked over last summer to view this urban oasis, “my husband’s cousin stopped the conversation and said in awe, ‘Do you realize that this is heaven here?’ ” reports Tessier. ” ‘You’ve made heaven.’ “

Tip: Outdoor storage saves countless trips lugging cushions.