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Inside the Creation of One of Boston’s Most Stunning Outdoor Spaces, According to the Person Who Built It

Boston is home to some of the most gorgeous outdoor patios and rooftops, which become sites for relaxation, entertainment, and connection. But, as Boston renters and homeowners know all too well, these high-potential spaces are often left unused due to their vulnerability to the elements and lack of access.

That’s where skilled builders like David Cohen come in. As owner of Hampden Design + Construction, he’s helped urban properties reach their full potential in Boston since 2003. He knows what it takes—from permits to plumbing—to turn even the most lifeless outdoor spaces into breathtaking urban oases that are usable through at least three New England seasons. 

Cohen and his team at Hampden have completed several outdoor projects in Boston, including a stunning historic roof deck in Back Bay. We sat down with him to find out what to expect in an outdoor renovation project in Boston, from the big challenges to small details, all with breathtaking results.

The Revival of The Outdoor Space

Cohen says that he’s seen an increasing number of outdoor projects in Boston, pointing out that clients are just as concerned with outdoor usability as they are with indoor usability. “They want outdoor areas to expand livable and usable space,” he says.

This trend is in large part due to cultural shifts Boston has seen since the pandemic. “The dynamic of the home has dramatically changed since COVID,” Cohen says. With the rise of home offices and at-home leisure time, he’s found that outside spaces are especially important for clients. “It’s becoming an extension of their home, more space for them to utilize, another place to do Zoom meetings, another place to watch TV.”

But Cohen has seen additional change within the umbrella of outdoor projects due to the changing climate. Until recently, he says, people were looking predominantly for sunrooms, just to keep bugs away during meals. 

Now, with the climate changing in New England, it’s becoming more plausible for people to spend time outside in the milder fall and spring. “A lot of people are looking for outside spaces with both dining tables and chairs to eat, but also sofas and TVs,” he says. 

The uptick in outdoor projects has led Hampden Design onto the rooftops of Boston’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods, resulting in unique challenges—and especially satisfying results. Cohen says finding a balance between the demands of modern outdoor spaces and the original character of each space is his key: “How do you maintain the integrity and the feel and the design of these historic spaces and buildings?” he says.

Accessing and Working With Unused Urban Spaces

Hampden’s Back Bay roof deck renovation project was one of the many old Boston buildings where the owners didn’t have a way to access their roof. Countless centuries-old Boston rooftop spaces are not accessible to their owners; therefore, they’re not accessible to builders for renovation—until ambitious teams like Hampdenshow up with the tools to get it done.

With only a large skylight connecting the Back Bay condo to the outdoors (and neighborhood regulations preventing new construction that’s visible from the street), the team had only one option: to make the existing skylight into a door. 

Cohen explains that the skylight was a rectangular prism about six feet wide by eight feet deep, and about three feet high. The Hampden team divided the skylight into two halves so that someone climbing up the stairs could slide one part of the skylight open. “So as you come up the stairs, half of the box slides over the other half to give you access to climb outside,” he says. 

As far as construction goes, this human-sized opening was not exactly an entrypoint that would work for bringing large appliances and materials into the space. Thus begins the choreography of rooftop renovations: orchestrating crane operation, hiring police detail, organizing complicated schedules of equipment and material drop offs, and even making a plan for efficiently disposing of garbage (you can’t keep a dumpster on a city street). 

Luckily for his clients, that challenge is precisely what excites Cohen, and he’s learned to organize his projects down to the minute to avoid chaos and wasted time. “It becomes this spectacular scheduling house of cards,” he says.

Accommodating the Seasons 

Urban Boston properties like the Back Bay roofdeck come with a set of unique environmental challenges that Cohen has learned to overcome. Cohen says he takes special measures so that the space is comfortable in fall and spring and remains structurally sound during the frigid winter. 

Because the Boston air becomes colder in the fall and stays chilly in the spring, Bostonians like the Back Bay roofdeck clients count on fire features to keep them warm. “[Outdoor spaces] are beginning to transition to having gas fireplaces that you can sit around, and [be] an extension of indoor living in weather-permitting times of the year,” Cohen says. 

Cohen also extends roof deck usability past the summer months using lighting features, but he is still required to meet citywide light pollution regulations. “In these urban areas, you want to be respectful of everybody else and not distort the feel of downtown Boston,” he says. To find a brightness balance, they use landscape lighting. “It’s not floodlights, like you’re standing in Fenway Park,” he says. “It’s more background lights.”

Cohen often installs this landscape lighting directly into the deck’s structure, as with the Back Bay project. “We use lights to define the space and define where the boundary is,” he says. They also install task lights in outdoor kitchenettes where homeowners use counter space to prepare food and drinks in the dark. 

With the winter darkness comes harsher elements, so Cohen is also required to consider building materials that will stand the test of Boston winter. Of the three main categories (stone, natural wood, and synthetic wood), Cohen steers clear of synthetic materials to avoid harmful plastics, and can’t often use stone because of its significant weight. Instead, he’s come to depend on a gorgeous natural wood called Ipe. Ipe is ninth on the Janka Hardness Scale, which rates woods based on their durability and can indicate their success in outdoor environments—Ipe has an outdoor life of more than 75 years. “It really is a zero-maintenance, bulletproof product,” Cohen says. 

The decking material isn’t the only thing that needs to last through the harsh winter. In projects with plumbing like the Back Bay roofdeck, which has a sink included in its kitchenette setup, Cohen has to engineer a user-friendly winterization method so that the homeowner has the ability to close and open the sink without hiring a professional. 

Cohen borrows familiar materials from boats and RVs to develop winter- and humidity-safe pipe systems for outdoor kitchenettes. “There are different stainless steel pieces that don’t rust and rot,” he says, noting that Boston’s proximity to the ocean elevates the risk of corrosion.

So, Cohen and his team install pipes that homeowners can disconnect on their own. Of course, Cohen and his team are available to assist clients if they prefer not to attempt the seasonal transitions on their own. “It gives you the choice,” he says. “If you don’t feel comfortable, we’ll do it for you.” Either way, with or without Hampden’s help, you’ll be off and running for the season—entertaining guests, enjoying the fresh air, and admiring your Boston view.

To see more of Hampden Design + Construction’s stunning outdoor and indoor projects, visit their website.