Rooftop Retreat for a D.C. Not-for-Profit
Abram Goodrich in Workplace Design, roofscapes

The rooftop conference center at the American Psychological Association's D.C. office. Image © Gensler

“Oh, wow!” I’ve overheard this more than once. It's the reaction when the elevator doors open onto the American Psychological Association’s (APA) new rooftop conference center. The view – looking across a verdant terrace to take in the U.S. Capitol dome rising over the trees – makes an impression.

But this was not always the case. In the past, going up to the APA roof meant taking a freight elevator, traversing back corridors, and being greeted by expanses of concrete pavers and roof ballast stone ringing an unoccupied mechanical penthouse. The capitol dome was there, but it didn’t have quite the same impact.

And there was a “tower” on the roof. The 1992 deco-style building had a rooftop decorative tower on a prominent corner, complete with windows. The tower was not meant to be occupied, but inside was a large space with amazing views. The set-up just begged the question: Is there any way to have meetings up here?

Image © Gensler

A Roof Becomes a Roofscape

Gensler, in close collaboration with landscape architects Oehme van Sweden, helped APA transform the tower and the surrounding rooftop into an urban retreat, an unexpected emerald in the building’s crown. Meeting and pre-meeting spaces, designed to leverage abundant daylight, flow easily into lushly planted outdoor gathering spaces. These outdoor rooms are used for breaks between meetings, as lunch spots for all building tenants, for special events like twilight receptions, and for just getting a quiet minute in a restful garden.

But the space is also about work. In 2015, when it’s possible to work anywhere, people want to be productive in a variety of environments. They don't want to feel pinned to a desk. Susan Burk, Director of Real Estate for APA, described a telling moment: on a cool October morning, she was surprised to encounter a small group meeting outside, bundled up in coats!

The Value Proposition

Roofs are often forlorn places that no one gets to see. This is all too often a missed opportunity. Now building developers and owners are increasingly looking to green these surfaces to meet sustainable design goals and code requirements. And once a roof is green, what a shame it is not to be able to experience it!

The APA, like many other not-for-profit entities, owns the building they occupy. From an owner’s perspective, the question that needs to be asked is are we making the most of our asset? In light of this query, a roofscape that combines a green roof and compelling, usable amenity spaces often makes sense.

The rooftop conference center at the American Psychological Association's D.C. office. Image © Gensler

Of course when considering a rooftop renovation, it is important to understand both the opportunities and the challenges:

Roofscape opportunities
  1. Outdoor oasis: Visit a (secure) urban park without leaving the building.
  2. Enriched workplace: Alternative work environments restore and inspire and provide employees with choice in where to work.
  3. Sustainable design: Improve the environment with a green roofscape.
  4. Large interior spaces: It is much simpler to go column-free at the top of a building rather than the bottom. And it is possible to raise the roof for higher ceilings.
  5. Copious daylight: Shape a rooftop addition to bring in light from any side, including the top.
  6. Add value: Create an amenity that makes the building desirable and unique.

Roofscape Challenges (particularly for renovations)
  1. Access and egress: An occupied roof requires getting people up and back using elevators and stairs. It also requires the provision of routes to get people down safely in emergency situations.
  2. Coexisting with rooftop equipment: Making a beautiful (and quiet) place often requires getting creative with the building’s hidden workhorses.
  3. Structural capacity: Creating additional building, green roof, and occupied spaces can require reinforcing the existing roof.
  4. Limitations on building size, height, and setbacks: Building configurations are regulated by building codes and zoning regulations.
  5. Working on (top of) an occupied building: Surgery on the building’s most sensitive weather barrier demands thoughtful planning, particularly when people are working below.

While the list of challenges may seem like a lot to overcome, many building owners may find that the long-term ROI justifies the effort and expense of a rooftop renovation. The tops of buildings tend to be neglected places. Transforming a rooftop into a roofscape has the potential to increase a building’s value while also enhancing the experience of all those who use the building.

Abram is an award-winning designer and project architect with experience in interior design, building architecture and renovation, and environmental graphic design. He has worked on a number of challenging and specialty projects, including a recording and live performance studio and a renovation design of the historic American Institute of Architects (AIA) headquarters to move towards carbon neutrality. Contact him at
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