Know Your House: What Kind of Roof Do You Have?
Gable, hip, gambrel, mansard - the shape of your roof says something about your home's connection to earth and sky.
Just about the most common roof type is the gable roof. The shape on children’s drawings of houses and on the building pieces in the game of Monopoly, the gable roof is seen everywhere and just about every culture.
Although this roof type is inexpensive and easily built, I don’t think that its simplicity explains its popularity. Instead, I believe that its shape, which lifts us up to the sky, speaks to optimism and hope. Perhaps this is why so many churches use the gable roof to cover the gathering space.
And lest we think that the gable roof is only for a traditionally styled home (think Colonial), its simplicity of shape and form makes it easily adaptable for a more contemporary aesthetic.
Another common roof type is the hip roof. This roof, unlike the gable, has a pitch on all sides so that it acts to cradle and hold down the house. In this way, it speaks to the horizontal plane, tying the house to the earth. No wonder it was the favorite roof type for the Prairie School architects.
The hip roof is another simply formed and easily built roof that efficiently sheds water. But unlike the gable roof, this roof eliminates large expanses of wall on the exterior. This can reduce the amount of exterior siding or other finish and, therefore, can be a cost-effective option. But I wouldn’t select it simply for that reason.
Rather, I’d select a hip roof to keep the house low and horizontal such that it sits gently on the earth.
A roof type that clearly sticks to the traditional aesthetic is the gambrel roof. This roof, unlike the gable with its single slope on each roof face, has multiple sloping faces. A shallow slope lower in the roof structure is followed by a steeper slope high up the face. The advantage of this roof type is that it provides for more interior space under the roof than the gable roof does.
The gambrel roof has been popular for barns, but it can also provide for an elegant and substantial exterior elevation for a house.
While the previous roofs have multiple pitched sides, the shed roof has one pitch only. Starting low and reaching upward, this roof is wonderfully simple to engineer and construct. It’s an ideal roof type for where there’s a big view or lots of sunshine that wants to be taken into the home.
A shed roof also creates a dramatic interior space when the underside of the roof structure is allowed to be the ceiling of the room. And by having a tall wall at one side, the shed roof can let in abundant sunshine, and allow views out and up to the sky.
A deep overhang on a shed roof emphasizes the planar nature of the roof and creates a shading device that can allow winter sun to enter the house while keeping out summer sun.
One of the more interesting roof structures is the butterfly roof. This roof is shaped like the wings of a butterfly and is like two shed roofs that meet over the house. Used for a more contemporary-styled home, this roof type allows for two tall exterior walls that are opposite each other.
Having the low point of the roof over the home’s interior can be a disadvantage since, if not constructed properly, leaks can occur. However, it can also be considered an advantage if used for water collecting (for the residents’ greywater needs).
A really nice attribute of a butterfly roof is the taller exterior walls, which let views and light into the home. Another welcome feature is that it can be used to create sheltered exterior spaces under the roof that fit within the overall structure of the home.
As roofing materials improved and modern aesthetics became popular, the low-slope roof grew in use. Sometimes referred to as a flat roof, the low-slope roof isn’t totally flat since some slope is needed to let water drain. Think of this roof as similar to your shower floor. Whether with a center drain or a drain located along the edge, the shower floor (or roof) must be pitched to create positive drainage.
In many ways, this roof is, at least visually, a nonroof. By visually disappearing, it allows the exterior walls of the house to become the dominant architectural feature.
So whether the design intent is to create a house that’s low-slung and horizontal or
when a machined, precise and Euclidean aesthetic is desired, a low-slope roof should be considered.
A more traditionally styled roof that’s been around for many centuries is the mansard roof. Its sophisticated aesthetic belies its reputed start in the cities of France as a response to tax policies.
In a sense, this roof is more wall than roof, with its almost vertical sloping sides on all faces of the house. It maximizes interior space on the upper level, which, though called an ‘attic,’ can serve as a living floor.
Traditionally used mostly in urban settings, the mansard roof became popular on small cottages in 19th-century America, possibly due to a fascination with French culture and design. I like to think that mansards became popular because they provided sophistication to even the most modest of houses and buildings constructed during that time.
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