Roofs Tell the Story

The shape and pitch of the roof will reveal fascinating facts about the house.

March 1, 2004

The roof is a very important part of any house, but it is often under-appreciated. Your prospective buyers may ask for nothing more than a roof that does not leak. Before you rush inside, however, it's helpful to step back and study the roof with an artist's eye.

Whether composed of slate, tile, wood, metal, or modern composites, the roof defines the personality of the house. An uncomplicated roofline will suggest quiet dignity, while an elaborate roof with cross-gables or turrets may seem like icing on an already delicious cake. Often, you will be able to identify the home's overall architectural style simply by observing two key features: shape and pitch.


  • Gable. Have you ever watched a group of kindergartners draw pictures of their homes? The drawings are often remarkably similar. In North America, a simple square topped by a triangle has come to symbolize home and all its comforts. And no wonder. The classic gable—or triangular—roof dates back to ancient Greece. Inspired by the Parthenon and other great temples, early builders in Northern Europe constructed homes with triangular gables at the front or the sides. Many American housing styles, from Colonial to Contemporary, have gable roofs. The triangular forms are often echoed in dormers, door pediments, porches, and wings.
  • A-frame. Introduced in 1957 by the architect Andrew Geller, an A-frame home is all roof with no perpendicular walls. These distinctive A-shaped homes are usually built as vacation cottages.
  • Saltbox. Named after the boxes used to store salt during Colonial times, a saltbox roof forms a lopsided triangle. The slanting saltbox shape became popular during Colonial times when low, one-story rooms were added to the rear of taller homes. Twentieth-century Split Level homes also can have a saltbox roofline, usually facing the front.
  • Shed. Often used for porches, a shed roof is essentially half a gable. The simple, streamlined shape is a favorite for Contemporary homes.
  • Gambrel. A gambrel roof is a gable with a slight bend on each side. This popular roofing shape, often used for barns, is a hallmark of the Dutch Colonial style.
  • Hipped. A hipped (or hip) roof slopes down to the eaves on all four sides. It may form a perfect pyramid with a single point at top, or it may slope down from a ridge. Hipped roofs are often found on French-inspired, American Foursquare, and a variety of Colonial and Victorian styles.
  • Mansard. Nearly flat on top, a mansard roof slopes almost vertically down on all four sides. In 17th-century France, this elegant style became popular because it created extra living space in the attic. In the United States, mansard roofs are a hallmark of the Second-Empire style. You also may find variations of the mansard roof shape on Contemporary homes.


  • Flat. A sloping roof is practical for deflecting rain and snow, but in arid parts of the world, slope is less important. Southwestern house styles, such as Pueblo and Spanish Eclectic, often have flat roofs. The development of more durable roofing materials has eliminated concerns about the weather, and flat roofs are common on modern, International-style homes and many urban townhouses.
  • Slight Pitch. Gable, hipped, shed, and other roof shapes with very gradual slopes may appear almost flat. Mediterranean and Italianate-style homes often have subtle rooflines. Low, gently pitched roofs also are characteristic of many 20th century styles, including Craftsman Bungalow, Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie-style houses, and the ever-popular Ranch.
  • Dramatic Pitch. A gable roof that is narrow and extremely steep is almost always inspired by Gothic traditions. Imitating the churches of Medieval Europe, Gothic Revival and Carpenter Gothic houses create a sense of vaulting height with tall, pointed gables.

Details and Elaborations

As you browse through your listings, you are likely to find many variations on these essential forms. It's not unusual for several roof shapes to combine on a single house. An elaborate style such as Queen Anne may have a hipped roof with side gables and a round tower. Multiple shed roofs sloping at odd, unexpected angles can bring excitement to a Contemporary home. Still other styles might feature cupolas, parapets, or stately rows of dormers. Special details like these won't keep the roof from leaking, but they are sure to peak the interest of prospective buyers.

Learn More:'s Roof Terms and Terminology


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


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