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A little island of nature — up high

No yard? No problem for one Santa Monica couple, who turned the roof of their loft into a tranquil, relaxing space. There's room for their girls to play and the grown-ups to chill out.

September 03, 2011|By Barbara Thornburg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Brooke, 5, left, and sister Jade, 3, prance on artificial turf, while their mom, designer Velvet Hammerschmidt, looks from the sunbathing deck.
Brooke, 5, left, and sister Jade, 3, prance on artificial turf, while their… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Here in the capital of outdoor living, there is the front yard. And there is the backyard. But an up yard?

For interior designer Velvet Hammerschmidt and her husband, software executive Mark Friedman, that was the solution. They loved their modern loft digs in Santa Monica's Commercial Broadway District. Within minutes, they could stroll to their favorite restaurant, browse the boutiques on the Third Street Promenade, watch a mime, stop for a cappuccino.

But the desire for a such a metropolitan life also came with a natural longing for, well, nature.

They wanted their own outdoors — a private place to dine alfresco, to watch psychedelic sunsets, to sit by a fire and gaze at the starry night and, more recently, to play. Since moving into their loft seven years ago, they've had two girls, Brooke, 5, and Jade, 3.

"We had all the urban amenities," Friedman said. "What we wanted was a relaxing, tranquil space — a little island of nature where we could chill out and the girls could play."

The rooftop that spanned their 3,800-square-foot loft proved to be an ideal setting for doing just that. But the space — 18 feet wide, 60 feet long and appointed with unattractive air conditioning ducts — had little in the way of aesthetics. Even more problematic was its severe cant.

"With all the angles, it looked like a B-2 stealth bomber was hiding up there," Hammerschmidt said with a laugh. "We couldn't put a chair or dining table on the roof, because of the steep slope."

The couple called in the Los Angeles firm of Brandow & Johnston. Structural engineer Peter Moranian provided drawings to strengthen the roof for a raised deck.

"It included adding plates to the top of columns in order to receive posts for the raised deck," Moranian said. "We also advised adding posts to strengthen the structure and wood blocks to build up the roof for additional seismic forces."

Next came the issue of a deck material. The couple had their heart set on wood, which looked warm and inviting and created the ambience of a real room, "but wood roofs in Southern California are illegal unless they are grandfathered in," said architect William Brantley of Aarts Architects in Marina del Rey, who designed the three-story building and who occasionally helped the couple navigate the waters of the Santa Monica Building and Safety Division. "They needed a material with a Class A fire rating."

After speaking with consultants and doing their own research, they chose ipe, often called ironwood, a dense wood that met the Class A requirements.

"The contractors didn't like working with it," Hammerschmidt said. "It is so dense, it kept breaking drill bits and dulling saw blades, but it passed code and allowed us to have the wood deck that we wanted." Today, the ipe is set in 3-by-3-foot squares, with the boards running in alternating directions to form a checkerboard pattern.

With the roof material settled, next came the layout. A detailed scale model changed three times. Early iterations had different seating arrangements, and one even sported a Jacuzzi.

"The model proved invaluable in visualizing the space and deciding exactly what we really wanted — and to get it right," Friedman said. "We finally decided a Jacuzzi would take up too much room, and we didn't feel like we would use it that much."

The final plan features a central living section with a kitchen, dining table and lounge area. That's flanked by an elevated sunbathing area on the eastern end of the deck and a garden with a fountain on the west. It's a modern space, in keeping with the trend toward outdoor rooms as artfully appointed as the interior of the home.

"People want everything they have inside, outside and sometimes more," said Janice Feldman, president and chief executive of Janus et Cie, maker of outdoor furnishings for more than three decades. "Also, holistically, people just want to be outdoors… They want to see sky and light."

Hammerschmidt and Friedman's deck sports a Viking barbecue, warming drawers and gas burners, plus a sink and an under-counter refrigerator. Built-in L-shaped seating constructed of ipe and stucco provides a comfy corner for curling up with a book or sitting with friends over cocktails. Behind this lounge, a teak dining table fits eight comfortably.

A fire pit with a granite surround keeps the area warm on chilly Santa Monica evenings, while triangular sun shades stationed by the dining and living areas block out harsh sunlight. Surrounding the rooftop, an opaque white glass fence protects against high winds, provides privacy and screens out neighboring rooftops.

At the western end of the deck overlooking the ocean, a copper runnel descends from a circular fountain and runs through to a lovely water-wise garden of tall grasses, red flax, rosemary and succulents before cascading into a small pool near the lounge area.

"Fourth of July, we can see fireworks form Malibu to Manhattan Beach," Hammerschmidt said. "And we always have the lights from the Santa Monica Pier and Ferris wheel to look at."

Perhaps, most important, the couple's girls love the new rooftop. "They have yellow ducky races down the runnel," Friedman said, adding that this one water feature can keep them entertained for hours. "Sometimes, in the summer, we fill a small plastic pool with water for them to play in. Essentially, this is the kid's backyard."

Or the up yard, he said. "They can jump around and just be kids."

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