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Rooftop escape
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 09 - 2004

Vivian Salama takes a vertical getaway
As the dog days of summer come to a close, people continue to look for opportunities to take a little fresh air. The Corniche and the bridges are the first places to draw crowds, especially at night. Of course, there are also a few, scattered parks and outdoor seating areas in Cairo, but they are all lacking one thing -- privacy.
If there's one thing Cairo is notorious for, it's wasted space. This overpopulated city has yet to put to good practical use many areas that could otherwise provide a great getaway close to hand.
Yet we may not have to wait for a revolution in planning mentalities, for the simplest solution is right there above our heads -- our rooftops.
Most of the roofs in Cairo measure between 500 and 600 square metres, according to Yehya El-Alaili, of Sights International Landscape Architects. "It's a way to have fresh air and a nice environment. You can use it as a sitting area: it's cooler in the summer, and sunny in the winter."
"Privacy is an important issue for people in Egypt," agrees Hussein Rifaai, development coordinator for Segman Consulting Engineering Group. "Cairo is now very crowded. There are really no nice open spaces when you want to go out!"
A roof deck is an excellent alternative. It can serve as an escape from the daily hustle and bustle of the city, and can be customised according to the requirements of its residents.
The decision to build a roof deck is usually made by the building's owner, or as a collaborative decision by all the residents.
"First they have to set a target -- what do they want for this roof," explains Rifaai. "If it's to serve an entire building, it must satisfy all the people concerned: this is the main problem when dealing with a community."
Naturally, the needs of a "community" vary from one person to the next. "Do they need a shed area?" El-Alaili queries. "Do they need planters, are they going to want a barbecue, do they have pets?" The list of possible variations is endless.
Once the basic needs of the community have been established, architects will come in, inspect the roof and, with input from residents, start sketching out a plan. According to Rifaai, the job is much easier in buildings where a roof deck has been viewed as a possibility from the start. "It will be less expensive if it's taken into account from the beginning," he explains. "In that case, 60 to 70 per cent of the construction will already be in place. You won't need to add tiles or put in electrical installations".
A major step towards clearing your rooftop is re-arranging the satellite dishes. Architects constructing a roof-deck usually include a satellite tower in the design so as to avoid clutter. "It's not just a matter of having a nice setting," says Rifaai. "You have to deal with these matters professionally. The location for the tower should be chosen either by the electrician or by the satellite guys. As a rule, they have their own specifications which will need to be rigorously adhered to."
The next step is budgeting. According to Segman Design team leader, engineer Alaa Mohamed Mahmoud, most firms will charge between LE120 and LE180 per square metre. "It depends on the accessories you are going to add, and the cost of the fixed sofa and chimney and bar," says Mahmoud. "Of course, it can be more than this if we have to build a bathroom and kitchenette."
"A simple deck can cost around LE25,000," says El-Alaili. "This includes a shed, a small kitchen and bathroom, planters and a barbecue."
Of course, some residents go crazy, installing swimming pools on their roofs, and causing the final bill to skyrocket.
"Water is the main problem," explains El-Alaili. "It creates the risk of serious damage to the building."
Rifaai agrees. "A substantial volume of water is extremely heavy, so swimming pools can be a structural hazard."
Other factors should be taken into consideration as well, according to El-Alaili. For example, climatic factors are a little bit different than on the ground, and this will effect the choice of plants. The wind is stronger, and sunlight more direct. "Shade-loving plants are out of the question!"
Plants will have to be bedded down in a lightweight planting soil, such as peat. "Peat will take anything -- trees, palms, shrubs, small aromatic plants," continues El-Alaili. "It's easy maintenance for plants, they don't need to be trimmed."
Most buildings have the bawab maintain the deck, and hire a specialist gardener to maintain the plants.
A plan such as this can transform the atmosphere of any rooftop. Sheds are an excellent place for parties or gatherings, cages can provide a playground for resident-pets to run free, and flowers can add a lovely aroma.
"I think one of the nicest elements is the chimney," adds Rifaai. "An outdoor chimney makes the roof so elegant. It looks very beautiful, and it means you can use the space in winter as a nice cozy place to be."
Roof decks may be as appealing as they are practical; however, the vast majority of residents in Egypt simply can't afford them. It is no surprise then when our architects point out that most of their customers reside in Cairo's wealthier neighbourhoods, such as Zamalek, Mohandessin or Maadi, as well as along the Corniche.
For those on small budgets, full-scale re-design may be out of the question. But cleaning up your rooftop can provide a first easy step towards providing a simple seating area for residents of any building.
"Very few people bother to keep their roofs clean," says El-Alaili. "People should make a separate area for utilities, water tanks, and satellite dishes, and clear the rest of the space for use."
Mahmoud offers a few suggestions of his own. "The simplest thing is to use bean bags. You could create a whole big sitting area for LE900 to LE1,000. All you need is a clean roof and some simple furniture."
The architects also suggest that if the view from your roof is not that nice, you can always enclose the area with plants or flowers so as to hide the urban eyesores outside.
"You can get a lot out of a roof deck," El-Alaili concludes. "You can have parties there, or just hang out at night. It's a great getaway!"

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