Middle age isn’t easy. It’s hard to keep the snow off the roof. The plumbing makes a lot of strange noises. And there are cracks and wrinkles where there never were before.
It’s hell on buildings, too.
A few years ago, the condominium tower at 3900 North Lake Shore Drive got to the point where it was time to replace the roof again. The roof doubled as a common area where people could gather and appreciate wonderful views of Chicago’s downtown skyline, the moody expanse of Lake Michigan, and with the aid of a pair of binoculars, watch a little ball being played inside Wrigley Field. But it was in terrible shape. Decades after the previous renovation, it was little more than crumbling concrete pads. Hardly anyone used it. The price to replace it? $800,000.
With that big a price tag, the condo board decided to spend a little more and do it right — Replace the entire roof and bring it up to modern standards. The winning proposal was from the Hicks Architectural Group in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood.
Architect Jim Hall notes that, what you see today is a long way from where the six-month project started. “They had pre-cast pavers, and they were all rotting. They were on some open-cell insulation that was completely saturated with water on top of a [decades]-old roof.”
In 2012, construction began — removing the old roof from the 26-story building, cleaning up tar-coated architectural details, installing improved insulation and waterproofing, and building a brand new roof deck. A deck to make the residents proud.
The new 9,000 square-foot deck feels as hip and modern as any posh Loop hotel rooftop. But at the same time works well with the building’s authentic Midcentury penthouse anchor.
The wood is not stained. Instead, it is being allowed to naturally silver with time and the elements. It is bordered by and punctuated with a number of planters. They serve as a nice visual complement to the natural wood, and are planted with species of the residents’ choosing. The landscaping is inserted into irrigation trays, which slot into the roof deck, making them easier to maintain, and reducing the need to water them. The taller planters also help shield the gathering spaces from the prevailing winds.
In addition, the greenery deliberately reduces the square footage of the roof deck. This is to keep the structure in line with Chicago’s fire code which only permits a certain amount of space for a roof deck, depending on the number of fire exits available. When we’ve seen other roof decks run into this limit, usually the building simply leaves that part of the roof untreated, and there is a large, ugly patch of tar or gravel exposed. In this case, the plantings reduce the square footage, along with pulling the railings back from the edge of the building. This also allowed physical elements to be built into the roof to allow maintenance crews to rappel down the sides of the building — something that wasn’t possible before.
Though it hasn’t been kitted out with furniture yet, the roof gets lots of use from the residents. The renovation brought with it two new gas barbecues, installed into an island with a stainless steel sink.
A rust-proof aluminum trellis outside the main entrance cuts the glare of the midday sun, while providing discrete LED lighting at night. Its design is spare and angular, and works in harmony with the roof’s entryway, nearly 60 years its elder.
The previous roof was ringed with a tall fences of thick posts, topped with lights. The motif was reminiscent of a prison rooftop exercise yard. Now a subtle fence, high enough to meet safety codes but low enough not to impede views, has been erected. It is accented with tiny lights embedded into the wood floor — miniature versions of the lights you’ve seen in airport runways.
There are several areas built into the roof’s design where people can gather in smaller groups for private conversations; one of which was deliberately aligned to look between neighboring buildings at the downtown skyline.
And of course, there are the views. 3900 Lake Shore Drive isn’t the tallest building in Lakeview, but its position and spacing from the neighbors gives it sweeping views in every direction, from horizon to horizon. From Indiana to Schaumburg to as far as the eye can see.
So, was it a success? In spite of its $1.1 million cost, building manager Nicole Plzak gives it an unqualified thumb’s up. It gets plenty of use from the people who live below it. In fact, the roof was in use all winter. The deck is a major selling point for the building, and helps it compete against the other buildings in the area, and impresses real estate agents and their clients. Ms. Plzak says, “Because we don’t have a pool, we don’t have a fitness center, this is our big amenity.”