At its most basic, a green roof consists of a carpet of hard-to-kill plants in a thin layer of soil. Luxury homeowners, however, are opting for bespoke greenscapes as carefully curated — and sometimes as costly — as art collections. With the right design, these eco-chic gardens also add insulation, absorb storm water runoff and deflect heat from the sun.
David and Henrie Whitcomb’s vertical garden redeemed a chunk of unusable space on their 2,500-square-foot wraparound terrace in New York’s Greenwich Village. The green wall must be replanted each spring, “based on what plants will survive there, and what plants will hold the soil,” said Emma Decaires, the Whitcombs’ horticulturalist. “I’m guessing that it might have been, by itself, a half-million dollar installation,” said Mr. Whitcomb.
David and Henrietta Whitcomb are pictured in their master bedroom, which has a direct view of the green wall. Their penthouse, which public records show was purchased for $8.7 million in 2007, came with “a great big 15-foot-high, 15-foot-wide ugly tan brick wall” that ruined the view, said Mr. Whitcomb, who founded Automated Trading Desk, one of the first high-frequency trading firms.
The Whitcombs, who own a second home in Hawaii, couldn’t tear down the brick wall: It’s the 1928 building’s chimney. So they transformed the eyesore into the centerpiece of their terrace garden, which also features a grove of Japanese maple, gray birch and serviceberry trees, and an evergreen that can be pushed on a built-in track to a prime spot at their living room window at Christmastime.
A view of the Whitcombs’ grove. During the 26-month remodeling project, the Whitcombs’ architect, John Tinmouth, and landscape architect, Linda Pollak, designed a wall of panels with a water feature and recessed slots for 600 plants which could be bracketed to the chimney. Future Green Studio, a New York-based firm specializing in green roofs and green walls, embedded the panels with ornamental grasses and trailing plants in shades of green, silver and purple—many of which eventually had to be replaced. The plants are watered by a drip irrigation system.
The CEO of developer DDG Partners, Joe McMillan, is pictured in the garden of his condominium apartment in a DDG building at 41 Bond Street in New York City.
A view of Mr. McMillan’s garden. “When you look out the window, it’s like a framed picture,” Mr. McMillan said. “There’s a certain sense of calm that you get from having green.”
The exterior of 41 Bond Street in New York City. Plants and vines creep across the bluestone facade from irrigated window boxes. Although Mr. McMillan’s master and guest bedrooms are at street level, they are shielded from view by the living woodland tableaux planted in the recessed windows: a mossy rock garden overgrown with ferns; witch hazel, yew and cypress trees growing out of thick plantings of grape-holly.
A view of the green roof at 41 Bond Street. In New York, the impact of a green roof on an apartment’s resale value is a matter of debate. “Every square foot that you sacrifice for landscaping as opposed to usable space is going to make the terrace less valuable,” said Michael Vargas, CEO of Manhattan-based Vanderbilt Appraisal Co.
Thirty-five stories above Manhattan’s Battery Park, Fred Rich can stroll through his groves of Japanese maple, spruce and pine trees or sit under a pergola hung with grape vines, where wild strawberries and thyme grow between the paving stones. He is pictured in his orchard of apple, plum, peach and nectarine trees.
With landscape architect Mark Morrison and a team of engineers, fabricators and organic farmers, Mr. Rich has created a 2,000-square-foot garden irrigated by recycled water on the rooftop of his $4.8 million penthouse.
“There is always something in bloom,” said Mr. Rich, who will be dining on fresh arugula, spinach and radishes from his vegetable beds, shown, this week. “I do my yoga in the morning and the birds sit there and watch.”
Mr. Rich, a 57-year-old partner at Sullivan & Cromwell law firm, declined to say what he spent on his rooftop retreat, which has views of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor.
For Ken Hilgendorf, an architect and builder in Los Angeles, a sloped green roof was the solution to a complicated renovation of his home in the city’s Westwood section. Set on a hill 30 feet above street level, “it was the lowest-cost house in the neighborhood, because the hill was so big,” said Mr. Hilgendorf, who paid about $600,000 for it in 1999. Mr. Hilgendorf, Darsi Meyer, and their dog Franky pose for a portrait on top of the garage of their home.
During a four-year renovation, Mr. Hilgendorf built a 75-foot-long garage at the foot of the property, then spent $54,000 on a green roof and landscaping designed by Stephen Billings of Pamela Burton and Co.
A massive earthwork sculpted from 150 cubic feet of “fluffy” custom-crafted soil, the garage roof is planted with a sycamore tree, ornamental grasses and a bright green hillock of no-mow grass — a fescue mix that tolerates excessive heat and drought conditions without losing its color.
Michael Gerstner created a dense meadow-scape on the roof of his Tribeca penthouse, inspired by New York City’s High Line elevated park. “I like nature and the presence of nature—I don’t like a sterile wood deck,” said Mr. Gerstner, 39, who works in investments. He bought the duplex in a converted 19th-century industrial building in 2011 for $3.1 million, according to city records, and spent two years remodeling it to “bring the outside in,” at a cost he declined to disclose. Here, his dogs Emmett and Archie enjoy the roof garden.
Sedum plants that were put in last year sprout from recessed containers in the garden floor. Elsewhere, juniper bushes, lavender, bright yellow yarrow and Scotch broom frame an ipe-wood deck. Although the plants have been selected for their hardiness in excessive sun and wind, they still require tending. A gardener makes regular visits to the 1,000-square-foot space, and a drip-irrigation system delivers measured amounts of water to different plant zones.
Once a caviar warehouse cooled by giant blocks of ice, the structure was strong enough to support 15,000 pounds of plant and soil. Instead of using a more bulkhead structure to access the roof, Mike Gerstner and his designer decided to build an atrium with a staircase leading to a retractable skylight. The atrium serves as an elegant entrance to the rooftop, and helps to bring the outside in, drawing natural sunlight into the duplex’s central living area.
Among its practical benefits, the meadow cools the duplex in the summer and insulates it during the winter, enabling Mr. Gerstner to leave the building’s original wood beams exposed. It has also saved him the cost of a summer rental in the Hamptons. Pictured, Mr. Gerstner’s dogs Archie and Emmett scurry down the steps from the roof garden into the home’s terrarium-like inner courtyard.