Bill Pilat feels as if he’s on top of the world, gazing out at the Philly skyline from the multilevel roof deck on his Southwest Center City rowhouse.
One level features Adirondack chairs and garden boxes with vegetables and herbs. Up a few stairs sit wood tabletops and bar stools, and, under a pergola strung with lights, a couch and fire-pit table. Pilat’s rat terrier mix, Zucc, likes to lounge on the roughly 400-square-foot deck, Pilat said. During the pandemic, he’s had socially distant gatherings with friends and brings his computer up to the roof while he works from home. A dozen or so other roof decks surround his.
He decided last year to replace the small, simple deck that was on the house when he bought it three years ago, and construction began in February. Soon, pandemic restrictions left Pilat cooped up and ling at building materials on his roof, picturing how he would use his new deck. But by June, his vision was reality.
“It’s just so peaceful, especially now when we can’t go out to too many places,” said Pilat, 34, who works in marketing. “Being able to go out somewhere — it was a godsend. I’m glad I didn’t push it off another year. I’d be kicking myself.”
The pandemic and early stay-at-home orders have changed homeowners' and buyers' priorities. More are seeking additional space, both inside and outside. Outdoor space is scarce in dense areas of the city, but it’s become more of a deal breaker this year for many home buyers.
When building out isn’t an option, roof decks can make all the difference. More buyers are looking for them, and some even bring contractors to showings to scope out the roof, said Stephanie Biello, president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. One of Biello’s clients with a $1.2 million home in Washington Square West plans to build a roof deck to help sell the house, which has been on the market for several months.
“Roof decks are like the new parking spaces,” Biello said.
David Posternack, owner of Swarthmore-based Match Remodeling, had been doing steady business working on kitchens, bathrooms, and basements in the city. But in June, his phone “really started ringing” with job requests.
“And suddenly, they all became roof decks,” Posternack said.
Because he and his crew of two to three focus on one job at a time, he’s had to turn away business, "which, as a small-business owner, is a painful thing to do,” he said.
Clients want to expand their living spaces. They want to be able to enjoy being outside without having to wear masks or worrying about crowded parks. (Plus, stronger breezes mean fewer bugs and relief from the heat.) They want a place to more safely socialize with family and friends, and they want somewhere to relax while their children sleep.
Most of the decks Posternack has built through the years are in South Philadelphia and Fairmount, and they are typically 300 to 450 square feet.
Getting the proper permits from the city takes about 90 days, assuming that everything goes smoothly. For Posternack, construction typically takes about a month, with more time added if the deck requires a “pilot house” — a shed-like structure with an interior staircase.
Posternack’s decks usually cost $25,000 to $50,000, but because they are customizable, prices vary.
Some decks are simple wooden structures for chairs and a table. Others extend more than one level and are more ornate, made with composite lumber that costs more but cuts down on upkeep. Grills, small kitchens with refrigerators, planters with flowers and vegetables, pergolas, televisions, and hot tubs are among the items that top Philadelphians' roof decks.
Before Sara Shuman moved into her condominium in the West Poplar section of the city in 2016, she’d lived in apartments where her only outdoor space was the nearest park. For a while, she just had a few pieces of furniture on her condo’s uninviting, “cookie-cutter” rooftop.
“It was kind of this bland, tan stucco, kind of depressing looking” space, said Shuman, 29, a senior communications specialist for a financial services company.
Last September, she began transforming her roof with the help of friends and family. Inspired by her volunteer work with Mural Arts, Shuman collaborated with illustrator friend Jamie Sebzda to design a mural of her own. Colorful painted plants reach toward the sky on one of the deck’s pink stucco walls.
She added a pergola, couches, a suspended rope chair, and a fire-pit table. She admits that she doesn’t have a green thumb, but the pandemic helped motivate her to plant a garden to create her “own little slice of the outdoors.”
“Having that extra space up on the roof and having it kind of personalized made such a big difference. I’ve been so grateful for that during COVID," she said. “I feel very, very lucky. I know not everyone has a space like that."
In June, she got engaged at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Berks County and her fiancé, Nicolas Wilhelm, got some friends to decorate the rooftop with flowers while they were gone. “We had this really pretty sunset photo shoot,” she said.
Last fall, Diana Chamberlain moved from a five-acre property in Connecticut with two ponds and a large vegetable garden to a rowhouse in Fairmount to satisfy her wish for city living. Chamberlain, a ceramicist in her 70s, loved that she had space for a kiln and a studio to sculpt porcelain. But a previous owner had extended the kitchen into the backyard, leaving little room for the gardening she also loves.
So she’s working with Philadelphia-based Bellweather Construction to design and build a wooden roof deck to bring country living to the city.
“One thing I found I missed very much is sky,” Chamberlain said. From the ground, "you only see slices of it.”
“I’m looking forward to getting a proper panoramic sky,” she said.
Paris is her biggest inspiration for a roof dwelling, said Chamberlain, who is from England. When she lived in Paris, she loved being able to see the Eiffel Tower from her balcony. Here, she’s excited to see the Schuylkill, the Art Museum, and parks.
“When you are up there, there is this whole other world above the buildings,” she said. “Being able to live in the city but to be up high looking out and seeing things quite a way off and seeing sunrises and sunsets. It’s for adventurousness, really. It’s like having a view from a cliff or something.”
During the pandemic, “we’re all making more of the space we have in the city,” she said.
Tiffany Hogan and her husband, Sean, have been enjoying the multilevel roof deck atop their Fairmount home with friends and family for four years. After their daughter, Jane, was born in November and the pandemic shut down the city a few months later, the deck became even more of a place to get away without going away.
They put artificial grass tiles on the upper deck so their daughter could crawl around, set up a splash pad, and dubbed the space “Camp Jane.” Built-in planter boxes hold tomato and pepper plants and perennials. Getting sunshine and fresh air on the deck “really helps with mental health,” said Hogan, 36, who works as a medical speech pathologist at a hospital.
She said the roof deck “allowed us to see our friends in person maybe a little sooner than we would have felt comfortable with otherwise,” because they had space to spread out.
While people were mostly confined to their homes early in the pandemic, the Hogans’ deck gave them a safe way to chat with neighbors from a distance. Like the sense of community among neighbors who sit on their stoops, “there’s also this interesting roof deck community,” Hogan said. Inspired by the deck, her brother-in-law is preparing to build one of his own a block away.