How to design and plant a roof terrace

A roof terrace is a wonderful way to extend your living space outdoors – and upwards. We take you through the design and planting process.

urban gardening: woman pours plants on roof garden, skyline in background

Roof terrace design: basic considerations

In an urban setting, a roof terrace makes a much more intimate retreat than a balcony; even for those living in a house with a garden, a rooftop space is still a much-appreciated addition, offering a new vantage point and expanded growing space. A roof terrace can not only add value to your property, but also significantly improve your quality of life.

The first thing to find out is how strong your roof is and whether you need planning permission. A visit from a structural engineer or surveyor will tell you what you need to know. Don’t be tempted to skip this step; your plans are likely to add significant load to the roof, particularly once you start adding planting or greened areas. So you need to be certain of the extent to which the structural conditions allow for roof vegetation and whether the substructure can support the additional weight.

Next, you need to consider what you want from the roof garden. Is it a relaxation space; should it be child-friendly; will there be a dining area? These considerations will guide your choices.

To design the best possible roof terrace for your needs, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How do I want to use the roof terrace?
  2. How much do I want to invest in creating the roof terrace?
  3. How much time do I have?
  4. How sunny/shady is the roof?
  5. How big and sturdy is the roof?

Designing your dream roof terrace

With a little effort and imagination, your roof terrace can become a fully-fledged living area, depending on the space available and the load-bearing capacity of your building. With careful planning you can cleverly design different areas so that you can enjoy your rooftop retreat all year round.

Roof terrace shade structures

Your roof terrace is likely to be an exposed position that gets a lot of strong sun, so we recommend adding roofed areas and structures that provide shade, so you can enjoy your roof terrace even at the height of summer. As an added bonus, you’ll also have shelter from sudden showers, as well as somewhere clean and dry for your furniture and garden play equipment.

Higher ground is always windier, so don’t forget to include windbreaks in your design. A parasol may be sufficient in some situations, but it is not an ideal solution in strong winds. A firmly-anchored shade sail offers protection from the sun and from light rain, while a canopy with an aluminium frame, glass and integrated sun protection is a robust, long-lasting option. Another good long-term option is a wooden pergola with climbing plants or a waterproof fabric covering. This must be made from weatherproof wood that will not rot or mould: Douglas fir, pine or spruce are popular, highly suitable materials for roof terrace structures.

Roof terrace flooring

The floor covering on your roof terrace will face the elements all day and every day. Your choice of flooring design is likely to be based on your personal taste, the cost, and the material’s durability.

If your roof garden is large, you can put together a design that uses multiple types of flooring for a zoning concept: just divide the space into different areas depending on how you wish to use it and you can then select flooring which suits the purpose of each individual area.

There are various materials which are suitable for roof terrace flooring:

Weatherproof wooden tiles for a roof terrace

Wood: Wooden flooring looks and feels pleasant in a roof garden, and only heats up a little even in strong sun – a significant advantage for those who like to go barefoot. To ensure that the floor lasts a long time, the wood should be laid on a substructure and treated appropriately according to the wood variety. Native larch and Douglas fir should be sealed to protect against discolouration and rotting, for example; otherwise, a special terrace oil or an oil that suits the type of wood you have used will protect the boards against UV light and moisture.

A man laying a WPC floor beside a white fence

WPC: Wood Plastic Composites (WPC) are blended materials which usually contain up to 60% wood shavings and up to 40% plastic. This composition means that a roof terrace design using WPC flooring is more weatherproof and more robust than pure wood, though WPC is laid in a similar way, on a substructure to prevent waterlogging. This type of flooring is easy to wash, and even stubborn dirt can easily be removed with a high-pressure cleaner.

Close-up of a floor laid with natural stone tiles

Tiles: Exterior tiles are a durable, low-maintenance option for roof terrace flooring design. You will need to start with a completely level subsurface that will not move or slip later – otherwise the tiles will be subjected to stress and will eventually crack. One significant design advantage of using tiles is that there is a huge range of colours and patterns available, so you can give your creativity free rein. Not all tiles are suitable though, and you should ensure that the tiles you use are very slip-resistant to minimise the risk of injury.

 

Close-up of green artificial grass


Lawn:
Think having a roof garden means forgoing a lawn? Think again! To make your roof terrace into a green space, you can use high-quality artificial lawn which can be laid on any surface. You should ensure that it is permeable to water and UV-resistant. It may also be possible to incorporate real grass in your roof terrace design, depending on the load-bearing capacity of your garden. Regular lawn care and a subsurface which imitates real garden soil are crucial if you want your natural grass to thrive. Our guide will tell you how to lay a lawn.

Privacy for your roof terrace

Suitable screening on your roof terrace will help you avoid the curious gazes of your neighbours. There are lots of possibilities here, and the right choice will create privacy as well as functioning as a decorative element. Planted raised beds and planters containing hedging or taller species bring nature straight to your rooftop. Outdoor screens, bamboo, privacy netting and trellises with climbing plants will also help screen off your roof terrace.

Roof terrace furniture and decoration

If you design your roof terrace to be cosy and comfortable, you’ll soon find you have a much-used multifunctional space with a real wow factor. Sofas, hammocks, loungers and rocking chairs create an inviting haven for relaxation, while a welcoming dining area is ideal for enjoying breakfast al fresco or warm evening barbecues. Cushions, rugs, fountains and atmospheric light sources such as braziers, storm lamps and lanterns add beautiful touches and create a special mood for your roof terrace. If you feel like getting creative and adding something completely unique, you could even try making your own wooden lantern.

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The garden furniture on your roof terrace should be made from weatherproof materials so you can continue to enjoy it for a long time to come. Plastic and metal furniture is durable and can be cleaned easily with a high-pressure cleaner, while weather-sealed wooden furniture creates a warm, snug atmosphere and can also last many years with regular care. You could even adorn your space with a homemade piece to be proud of! Why not check out our do-it-yourself ideas for some inspiration?

Drainage

A flat root terrace needs controlled drainage to ensure your feet stay dry and prevent water from accumulating for long periods, thereby protecting the flooring and furnishings from moisture damage. It also means no additional weight from collecting rain. Make sure your roof terrace design includes an adequate built-in drainage system and that it is working correctly.

Planting a roof terrace

Whether you use them decoratively, for privacy screening or to partition garden zones, plants are always appropriate on a roof terrace. As you consider planting design for your roof terrace, the key things to bear in mind are the additional structural load from soil in planters and beds, and the specific climatic conditions.

To make your roof garden space a pleasure to be in all year round, use a mix of robust, evergreen winter hardy plants and annual summer flowers. That way your roof terrace will be alive with colour and sweet scents in summer, while frost-resistant green shrubs and perennials keep the beauty alive in the colder months.

Damit Sie an Ihrer Einrichtung noch lange Freude haben, gestalten Sie Ihre Dachterrasse mit Gartenmöbeln aus wetterfesten Materialien. Möbel aus Kunststoff und Metall sind dauerhaft und lassen sich ganz einfach mit einem Hochdruckreiniger säubern. Versiegelte Holzmöbel bleiben Ihnen bei regelmäßiger Pflege ebenfalls lange erhalten und schaffen eine behagliche, warme Atmosphäre. Umso schöner, wenn sie selbstgemacht sind! Lassen Sie sich von unseren Do-it-yourself-Ideen inspirieren.

My own roof terrace with apples hanging on a tree in Rotterdam

Roof terrace design: suitable plants

The more varied the types and sizes of the plants you choose, the better you will be able to imitate nature on your roof terrace. Remember though, plants in planters cannot access water and nutrients independently and so are dependent on regular care.

Shrubbery in containers can protect against the wind and create seclusion on your rooftop, as well as offering shade. Frost-hardy shrubs are easy to care for, continue to look good in winter, and are often delightfully lush and colourful at the height of the season. Evergreen box and tall-growing bamboo (fargesia varieties) have proven to be ideal shrubs for roof terraces as they are very easy to care for, though they do require frequent watering in very strong sun. Standard roses will also thrive in planters, if you want to enjoy beautiful blooms on your roof terrace.

Fern and red acer in front of a wooden partition on a terrace

Many small-growing trees that are suitable for growing in planters could also be planted on your roof terrace: acers, English yew and dwarf pine are frost-resistant and can overwinter outside all year round with a little help. Mediterranean plants such as fig or olive trees, add summer fragrance and ambience but will need somewhere warmer to spend the cold winter months.

Pots with rosemary, thyme and other herbs growing in them

Perennials and herbs are also an interesting option when to include in your planting design. Mediterranean rosemary, thyme and oregano love the sun and thrive on roof terraces. They are also hardy, and need only be covered with winter fleece during the harshest frosts. Lavender, with its unmistakable fragrance, is another reliable choice and gets along well with baby’s breath.

Make your rooftop haven welcoming for wildlife too: herbs and native flowers attract butterflies, bees and other insects, offering them precious nectar and pollen to help them survive.

Our article about a wildlife-friendly garden offers many tips that you can also use to design a roof terrace that supports biodiversity in your area.

Summary: roof terrace design

  • A roof terrace will improve your quality of life and significantly increase the value of your property
  • Before designing your roof terrace, you should ascertain the load-bearing capacity of the building and check for planning permission and building regulation requirements. You should also verify that the drainage system is working correctly
  • Weatherproof flooring is essential for any roof terrace. Wood, WPC and non-slip tiles are common choices. Natural lawn may also be an option under certain circumstances
  • Privacy screens and roofed structures will create an intimate atmosphere on your roof terrace and protect you from the wind, sun and rain
  • Furniture and decorative elements made from weatherproof materials are ideal for a roof terrace. Plastic and metal are easy to care for, while wooden furniture creates a cosy atmosphere
  • You should add greenery to your roof terrace with a mixture of robust, evergreen plants and annual summer flowers. Insect-friendly plants on the roof offer an additional source of nutrition and living space for bees and butterflies