The Guerilla Deck

Quit squandering your roof's potential. It's easier to fix than you think. My right hand, unaccustomed to labor more manual...

Quit squandering your roof's potential. It's easier to fix than you think.

My right hand, unaccustomed to labor more manual than pushing a mouse, is blistered. My back, indolent from so many hours on the couch, is aching. With great effort, I'm sawing through two steel pipes. One appears to be a leftover fence post; the other, the air intake for a kitchen sink. Sweating, I fell these metal saplings and stash them in a corner of my rooftop.The doorbell rings. It's the landlord. We're building a deck on the roof of his property, without his permission or the city's. The roof looks like a junkyard. We panic briefly, then wave him up. I show off the deck's strong, safe foundation that won't pierce the rooftop. I demonstrate the modular design that allows for immediate and, if necessary, permanent removal of the planks. I pretend that I know what I'm doing.My girlfriend Neena and I are lucky: We have a 530-square-foot roof space attached to our one-bedroom apartment. The previous tenants squandered this resource, littering it with cheap plastic chairs and a few patches of worn Astroturf. As the DIY-minded son of a staunchly DIY dad, I knew I could do better. But how?

Challenge: I can't afford a contractor, and wouldn't hire one if I could.

My father taught me that only fools hire contractors for anything other than plumbing and electrical work. An engineer who designed and built roofing equipment, my dad was a very creative guy in a traditionally noncreative field. "We are not lazy people," he once said to me. "Always finish the job." The smell of motor oil still reminds me of our many trips to the junkyard, where we picked clean the bones of dead Corvairs and, later, for my first car, Mustangs. Though he died several years ago, my father was telling me to build our deck the hard way-with our own blood, sweat, and junk.Done right, our deck could be a showcase of the 21st century's greenest thinking. So I drew up a plan. With five weekends and $3,000, we would build a low-impact deck from scratch.

Challenge: Trendiness has made reclaimed lumber a luxury.

Obviously, buying virgin lumber isn't a sustainable practice. It leads to deforestation, less biodiversity, and deadly landslides. But junkyard lumber, now in vogue among high-end designers who prefer to call it "reclaimed," is too expensive. The most eco-friendly option is composite planks made from wood and recycled plastic, such as those made by Trex. They're easy to work with, they don't warp or splinter, and they come with a 25-year warranty. They, too, however, are expensive, and all those planks would cost more than four times our entire budget. In the end, we settled for pressure-treated pine from Dykes, an employee-owned lumberyard in Brooklyn. Not sustainable, but the best we could do.With help from a generous friend, we hauled several hundred pounds of lumber up our narrow, lopsided stairwell, through the kitchen and onto the roof. Next came 300 pounds of rubber matting (to protect the roof's surface), a gazillion galvanized decking screws, two sawhorses, and several gallons of stains and sealant. I wondered-would my father have been so handy had he lived not in a suburban house, but in a third-floor walk-up?

Challenge: How to waterproof the lumber without poisoning local ecosystems.

To seal the wood, the best finishes are zero- or low-VOC ("volatile organic compound"), such as BioShield's wood stains and Safecoat's WaterShield. Using a nontoxic sealant is crucial for decks that sit directly on the ground; the chemicals will slowly bleed into the soil and may eventually reach the water table. Even on our rooftop deck, rainwater will go into the gutter, into the sewer, and eventually into the East River.

Challenge: Actually building the thing.

Soon enough, it was time to break in my glorious new drill and circular saw. In two marathon afternoons, I built the 16 mattress-size units. Because my work area was the deck itself, I had to be economical with space. In a backyard build, it's easy-pour a bunch of concrete posts, add vertical support posts, raise the crossbeams, and start securing your deck planks. Needing to be more crafty, I arranged six 6-inch-by-8-foot planks side-by-side, then held them together with 3-foot lengths of 2-by-4-thereby making a fairly sturdy 3-by-8-foot platform. With 16 of these units, I could cover nearly 400 square feet of rooftop. Once they were laid and leveled on a series of small freestanding piers, they would become Barbecue Heaven.

Challenge: Finding plants and planters I can afford

Every day we scoured Craigslist for reclaimable deck furnishings. From Build It Green, we hauled away two enameled steel bathtubs to be redeployed as planters. To hold flowers and herbs, I weatherproofed three small filing cabinet drawers. One night, I found a metal footlocker at the curb-the perfect flowerbed. We wanted more than a pretty space; we wanted to grow stuff. Caring for plants is healthy. It's also good for the city. Plants pump oxygen into the air, of course, but, when placed on the roof, they also insulate the building, thus lowering heating and cooling costs.I finally found some old lumber: a dozen 2-by-10s that looked like old theater floorboards. I built long, narrow planters for maiden grass, a perennial that can reach 7 feet tall. Positioned in front of wooden latticework, we'd have a buffer screening off the busy street's sights and sounds.

Challenge: Trapping rainwater the old-fashioned way

Even our garden's water is coming from a renewable source: the sky. On eBay, I bought a decommissioned food barrel that once held olives in Greece. With a piece of window screen, basic plumbing hardware, and minor modifications to our gutter, it became a rain barrel. Short of building a personal wind turbine (which I considered), we're pretty off-the-grid for a Brooklyn rooftop. We even researched what's best for grilling, deciding that a refillable propane tank is better than burning 5 pounds of charcoal every time we want a few burgers. Now it's the end of the summer. We've already hosted several barbecues, and our Netflix queue hasn't moved in weeks. A few of the planks have begun to warp, but I expected that. The next time we build a roof deck that's bigger than our apartment, we'll find more time and money. And we'll tell the landlord-but hopefully, by then, the landlord will be us.WHAT WE SPENTNew drill and circular saw: $300Lumber, nails, other building materials: $1,500Truck rentals: $400Two tables, 8 chairs, umbrella (used and hand-me-down): $200Trees, plants, and flowers: $500Planters: $200Potting soil: $250Gas grill: $200Back-breaking labor: Donated by friends