Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Little by little, the skylines of our cities are becoming decidedly greener. The rise and rise of the sky garden has the potential to radically reinvent the way that our rooftops look and feel, as well as the way that they are used. The nature of rooftop living is becoming ever more sophisticated, as we move on from pavers and pot plants and into the realm of spacious, seductive and eco-friendly gardens. Leading the way to the heights of this richly planted horticultural dreamland are young families looking to enjoy all the benefits of outdoor living right at the heart of the city.

An imaginative group of free thinkers are breaking from that familiar pattern of families drifting away from urban centres and off to the suburbs or the countryside, in search of bigger gardens and a better quality of life.  Facing up to the realities of limited green space down on the ground – not helped by a long period of garden grabbing by developers as well as land hungry motor cars in search of a private parking spot  – forward looking families are now turning to the skies.

In London’s Shoreditch, Lucy Musgrave and her husband Zad Rogers have created an extraordinary family home and garden up in the air, perched on top of a former Victorian warehouse. Here, the couple and their four young children – aged 7 through to 13 – now have a two storey apartment complete with planted balconies plus a large sky garden. As well as drinking in a striking view of the ever evolving London skyline, the family have plenty of light, air and outdoor living space, delights that can be in short supply down in the streets below.

‘The whole concept of the flat was developed around having a rooftop garden for our family and trying to green and beautify a small corner of grey and gritty inner London,’ says Musgrave, co-founder of planning consultancy, General Public Agency and a former head of the Architecture Foundation. ‘Our somewhat romantic notion was to create out of thin air something as intriguing as our inspiration, which was the rooftop gardens that one glimpses looking up from the streets of Rome.’

Within a long and winding story of planning complexity, Musgrave and Rogers managed to buy the roof space and air rights to the apartment building and worked on creating their new home in the sky with the help of Zad’s father, Richard Rogers, as well as project architects Tonkin Liu. The children’s bedrooms and a large family room dominate the lower level, while much of the upper storey is one open plan, transparent pavilion for living, eating and dining, with the master bedroom to one side.

Long balconies are planted with climbing wisteria, jasmine and clematis, while also being wide enough to function as decks. Up on the roof there’s lavender, rosemary and sedum as well as solar panels. ‘The day after we planted the lavender there were hundreds and hundreds of bees on the roof,’ says Musgrave. ‘It was amazing – how did they know? But living in this very hard urban landscape, the plants give is enormous pleasure visually as well as having been chosen for their scent. The provide a real sense of the changing seasons and the colours of a small green site in a sea of grey.’

For all the planning, design and practical challenges of building a home in the air from scratch, Musgrave suggests that with all the benefits to the family’s quality of life it was definitely all worthwhile and that she would even do it all over again. Sky top living makes particular sense in this part of East London, where there are few parks and the density of building is high. Within this increasingly fashionable enclave, sky gardens have been springing up on the roofs of houses and apartment buildings as well as restaurants and hotels, such as Terence Conran’s Boundary, blessed with a garden designed by Nicola Lesbirel.

Working with architect Tony Fretton, artist Brad Lochore has created a two level roof garden for the Shoreditch building that contains his family home and his studio. Lochore has radically reinvented and extended a former warehouse for himself, his wife Eden and ten year old daughter Phoebe, creating interiors that are warmed and softened by a Scandinavian, soft Modernist style use of natural materials and textures. But the space is brought alive by the roof gardens, which allow for uplifting an indoor-outdoor relationship in the main living spaces of the house.

On the first floor of the building, the dining room and kitchen open out onto an elevated courtyard garden, partially protected from the elements and the neighbours by surrounding walls. On the floor above, the sitting room leads out to a sun terrace positioned over the kitchen and study below, put to best use in the afternoon and evening to capture the western sun. 

‘It’s a way to retreat from the world but still have access to nature,’ says Lochore. ‘Roof gardens are a very persuasive idea but still much underused. In high summer it’s actually more comfortable for us to be outside. We can go and eat on the terrace or read a book and Phoebe can play basketball out there. But it also has a hugely powerful visual effect, even in winter. It’s incredible relaxing just to look out onto the garden and to see the bamboo in the breeze is like looking at flowing water or a fire. It’s that kind of mesmeric effect.

‘It’s also important to the working day, as we both work at home. We get together for lunch and maybe have a salad on the terrace and it does offer a respite from work, which is very important.’

For Lochore, the example of Arabic secret gardens was an inspiration, while the example of North African cities such as Marrakech – where the rooftops of the medina are treated as a valuable part of day to day life – is equally enticing.

‘The most interesting rooftop gardens that I have seen are protected and enclosed to some degree,’ says Lochore. ‘So they are down in courtyards or protected from the wind in some way because they sit between buildings. These kind of gardens really take the edge of the roughness of inner city living because they do offer tranquility and peace.’

Architect Trevor Horne also explored the idea of a semi-enclosed, sheltered sky garden within the home in Hackney that he designed for himself, his wife Susan Morris and eighteen year old step-daughter Hanna.  Horne took on a large site in collaboration with artist friends where he converted and extended two period buildings and replaced another to create a mélange of studios, offices and – at the very heart of the resulting building – a new family home up on the top storey. 

The key living spaces, as well as two of the bedrooms, open onto the courtyard garden, planted with substantial trees and shrubs contained in large, deep, bespoke planters. Banks of glass doors open out onto the sky garden, bringing light and fresh air through the apartment.

‘As an architect, some of my previous designs had incorporated outside spaces within buildings, but this was the first time I had done a project for myself and I too the opportunity to maximize the amount of outdoor space,’ says Horne. ‘It changes the experience of living in the apartment fundamentally and in fine weather we live outside as much as in.

‘The courtyard had its own microclimate which means that it’s warm and pleasant deep into the winter. The courtyard floods the house with light, you are always aware of the weather and the seasons, birdsong is ever present and the smell of the plants and the dappled light through the leaves of the trees fills the house. It’s a very optimistic experience living here, even though we are in rather a gritty part of town.’

Architects Patrick Theis and Soraya Khan created a new pavilion and rooftop garden on top of a period building for brand consultant and designer Steve Edge and family. A new pavilion cradling the master bedroom and a new family room flows out to a large new sky garden. Khan suggests that it is partly the idea of easy access and a strong sense of connection between outside and in that is the key to creating a successful roof garden, especially for families.

‘One of the secrets is to have a substantial part of the home opening directly onto the garden,’ says Khan, whose practice has since completed other rooftop residences in the city. ‘It just doesn’t work when you have to go up through a roof hatch or something like that. You need that constant sense of connection or it just won’t get used.

‘But you do get so much more out of the city on the rooftops: the light, the air, the security, the space. It’s like being up in a castle. You feel protected and above everything and the distance between the buildings means that you do still have privacy.’

The many benefits of sky gardens seem to massively outweigh the practical difficulties of creating a green rooftop haven. Planning issues can be complex, access can be tricky and engineering checks will always be needed to check if an existing building can support the weight of soil and planting and whether or not extra structural support will need to be put in place. Drainage and water proofing and another big issue, but the good news is that investment in such things is nearly always outweighed by the added value – financial and otherwise – of all that premium outdoor space.

In New York, Lisa Goode has spent a lot of time learning about loading, soil depths and planting since co-founding her company Goode Green with husband Chris. Goode Green is a design company specialising in roof gardens, born out of the experience of creating their own family sky haven in Little Italy, Manhattan, shared with their six year old daughter Charlotte.

Designed around a new penthouse pavilion designed by architect Andrew Berman, holding the main living spaces of the apartment, the substantial garden includes a lawn, a vegetable garden, fruit trees and hedging and even room for chickens to roam. A more traditional green roof of sedum and wild flowers sits on top of the pavilion. 

‘We feel completely blessed and lucky to live in the city and not have to crave green space,’ says Goode. ‘It’s a big topic among people I know, some of whom have second homes and just want to get out of the city constantly. We are lucky to have outside space all year round.’

The Goodes bought their six storey commercial building outright to gain control over the rooftop and air rights. After refurbishing and renting out the floors below, they put in new steelwork to support their garden and created their two level apartment and sky garden. Goode suggests that for all the technical challenges of creating a roof garden, the soil and planting will help insulate a building and protect and preserve the water proof membrane needed to seal the roof.

Then there are all those environmental benefits: adding to the biodiversity of the city: improving air quality by pumping out oxygen and soaking up carbon dioxide with all those plants, while roof gardens also help control storm water run off, which can be a problem in cities like New York and London. Not to mention all the positives that the garden itself can bring to a family and its sense of well being, with growing your own food right in the heart of the city being just one of them.

‘It’s a great education for Charlotte and the garden has really become part of who she is as she’s growing up,’ Goode says. ‘I can’t get a berry at this time of year unless it’s out of her reach. She just stands at the fruit bushes and eats all the raspberries or blueberries. I have to pick them while she’s at school.’

Goode admits that not every building will be suitable for a sky garden, especially those that are already loaded with mechanical and ventilation equipment. But many existing city buildings will be ripe for rooftop gardens of all kinds and the potential is massive. And for new buildings, where a sky garden can be integrated into the architecture and engineering plans from the start, sky gardens could soon become a standard feature.

In Brisbane, architect James Russell designed a new home on stray piece of land next to a church. With offices on the ground floor of the new structure, Russell created a two storey home on the upper levels, all arranged around a central courtyard garden open to the sky. All the principal living spaces of the home - shared with wife Trish and their three young children, aged two up to six – open out onto the garden, which has its own child friendly lawn.

‘Outdoor space is limited in Fortitude Valley, were we live, so the garden in the middle of our house offers a sense of escape,’ says Russell. ‘Living and dining spaces are on one side, play areas on the other and the glass doors between inside and out sit open almost all year round and the kids run backwards and forwards. For us, most of our time is spent outside or living on the edge of the garden.

‘Our home would be like a unit or a flat without it and the outdoor space helps bring north sun deep into every room in the house. We experience the elements completely through the garden: the sound of the birds, the smell of the grass after the rain or the moisture building before a storm….’

The downsides of sky gardens are so limited, while the benefits are so remarkable. Back in the 1960s, some notable Modernist architects dreamed up the concept of ‘streets in the sky’, as they sought to make the idea of tower block living seductive. They failed, but now the dream of rooftop living is set to be reborn in the form of gardens in the sky. It’s a much friendlier, fresher idea all round and perfect for the day and age – and for making the most of family life deep in the urban jungle. 

‘Empty roofs are such a waste of planting space and growing space,’ says Brad Lochore. ‘One day we will get to the point where you have building control legislation that means you have to do something with your roof. It clearly makes sense. There’s just so much potential.’


Tonkin Liu –
Tony Fretton Architects –
Trevor Horne Architects –
Theis Khan Architects –
Andrew Berman Architect –
Goode Green –
James Russell Architect –