Designing the Roofline

As our construction start date draws nearer, I’m having to make some final choices regarding various exterior aspects of the new house, and I’m finding this process to be much more daunting than I’d expected. The problem is the finality of the decisions. Unlike interior finishings, roofing and windows are very expensive to replace or alter, and such tasks are not something you can DIY over a long weekend. Plus, the roof and windows are major architectural features – the whole look of your house can change based on these elements alone.

My roofline crisis started when I went to pick out my windows: I realized that I had no idea how tall they should be, how high off the floor, or how wide. With new construction you aren’t limited in this regard, and the possibilities are almost endless. I did my best to pick them out based on my floor plan and room dimensions, then I sent the list to the designer so he could put them in our plans. I figured once I got a look at them in situ I would be able to refine my choices before placing my order.

When I got my first glimpse at the new drawings, which showed the house from an angle view rather than 2D elevation views, my heart just sank – but it wasn’t because of the windows. I was unhappy with the overall look of the house and I blamed it on the roofline.

I’d spent so many years working on a 2-dimensional floor plan that I hadn’t given much thought to roofing design. When it came time to turn my 2D plans into a 3D structure, I soon learned that these decisions are much more complex than I’d anticipated. For one thing, I had originally thought I might go with a shed-style roof, but I soon learned that my budget had no room for the fancy beams and trusses needed, which require an engineer for design and certification, so shed-style or flat roofs were ruled out almost right away.

Example of a house with shed-style roofing.

Example of a house with shed-style roofing.


Example of a house with flat roofing.

Example of a house with flat roofing.

I wasn’t too disappointed. Most of the Houzz* photos I’d collected in my Ideabooks showed gable-style roofs, which indicated that I would be happier going with that look rather than the more contemporary look of shed and flat roofs. Gabled rooflines are pretty simple, but you need to decide on the pitch – or steepness – of the roof, and that’s where I ran into trouble.

Gabled roofs get more expensive as the pitch of the gable increases (due to bigger trusses and more roofing material). Having a one-story home was very important to us, so using that extra roof space for an upper floor was not a desirable option. And because adding corners to exterior walls increases the cost of framing and pouring the foundation, we had lots of long walls. If we used a steep roof pitch, that would result in a very tall roof. So I tried to keep the roof pitch as shallow as possible. I was conscious that shallow roof pitches have a reputation for being ugly, but I figured this was a snob-factor issue stemming from the fact that manufactured homes tend to have shallow rooflines. Nevertheless, I couldn’t deny that I found steep gables more attractive – consider these examples:

Example of house with shallow (3:12) roof pitch.

House with shallow roof pitch.


Example of house with steeper roof pitch.

House with steeper roof pitch.

On the other hand, when you are dealing with a one-story home you have to consider the view of the long side of the house, and a steeper pitch isn’t always a good thing in that case. The photo below shows the long side of a one-story home with a shallow roof pitch. Notice how you see more of the white siding than you do of the grey roofing.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 2.36.11 PM

However, in this next photo of a house with a steeper roof pitch, you see a lot of roof relative to the siding (the covered porch accentuates this even further). I think this makes the house look top-heavy, and I find it visually unappealing.

heavy roof

Adding side gables along such a roofline certainly can help, and that was our initial approach. But when I viewed the first drawings, I thought it looked a bit boring. So the designer and I came up with a modified salt-box roof for one of the “pop-out” sections of the house, as shown in this image:

(Ignore the weird diagonal lines on the roof surface!)

(Ignore the weird diagonal lines on the roof surface!)

This gave the house a slightly modern, more interesting look and I was quite pleased. But the drawing above was created only recently in Google Sketchup. Back when we were first working on the design, I had limited access to quality 3D views (I had no room in the budget for an architect with fancy 3D software, and given that I had basically created the entire floor plan already, one of the builders – who also does a bit of design work on the side – put together the construction plans based on my drawings using some simple software that doesn’t do 3D renderings very well). I’d seen all the side elevation views, but it was only about 3 weeks ago – after I’d picked out my windows – that I saw my first 3D images…and that’s when I panicked.

I immediately decided that the roofline was too flat, and I tried to figure out what options I had given my limited budget. I came across this image of a dual-pitch gabled roofline in classic farmhouse/barn style.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 5.42.56 PM

I really liked it, and the more houses I saw with this roofline, the more I felt it would be a great choice for our house. The country/farmhouse style would be well-suited to our rural property, and it would add some much-needed character to the house. But could we do this? Was it too late? And importantly, would it be too expensive?

After all the work we’d done on the overall design, I was afraid to bring this suggestion to the builders, who were scrambling to get our plans submitted so we could get started before the winter weather set in. I wasn’t sure how important this would all be in the end, and I worried that I was overthinking the issue. But when I began losing sleep over it, I knew I needed to make a decision one way or the other.  And I realized that the only way to know for sure would be to see it in 3D, walk-around format.

So this past weekend I downloaded the latest version of Sketchup, watched a few tutorials, and put together some models based on the dimensions in the plans. Below is a screen shot of the house with the original roofline I designed, and below that is the modified (dual-pitch) roofline.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 8.29.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 8.30.34 PM

The difference is quite striking, in my opinion, and it is even more so when you manipulate the images and “walk around” the outside of the house. Here are a couple more shots (this time with a different colour scheme, and the bottom one is missing some windows):

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 8.34.00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 9.04.00 PM

What I really loved about this design was how it readily created a nice covered porch area that is so “classic farmhouse”. And to top it off, the point at which the pitch changes from steep to shallow – which I placed one-third of the way along that front face (top blue photo) – just happens to lie along a wall that runs almost the total length of the house. It was pure coincidence, but it meant that a change to this new roofline would require not a single change in the floor plan. Also, the new roof design meant I could have a vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom rather than a flat ceiling, and we could include an attic crawl space over the other rooms for storage.

After seeing these models I knew I would never be happy with the boring, flat roofline of my original design. So I screwed up my courage and took my images to the builders on the day we were going to submit the plans for the permit. They loved the new design. And after chatting amongst themselves they realized that it wouldn’t cost too much more to do this. It requires a bit more roofing material, but something about the new roof pitch meant that they could build many of the trusses themselves rather than having to order them from a truss company.

The decision meant we could not submit the plans that day, but I am so excited and happy with the new roofline that I don’t mind one bit. As I drove away from that meeting, I felt like a ton of weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and I knew it was the right decision. And every day as I go up the driveway and am greeted by that roofline, I know I will not regret it!



* If you have any interest in home design, whether architecture, landscaping, or interior design, you definitely need to check out It is incredibly addictive, but also very handy for figuring out what appeals to you and what doesn’t.

Categories: New House Build | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Designing the Roofline

  1. Very exciting! I love what you decided upon, given the constraints you had and the affinities you’ve expressed. It’s a nice look.

    I’m currently tossing around roofline ideas for our “town” house, a 1.5-storey home that needs to be re-roofed, that also needs a second bathroom which it makes sense to put into some sort of gable-y modification to the current saltbox roof. We have the added complication of a heritage neighbourhood and a 1903 house that I think should express its age with more grace than it currently does. I’m very familiar with Houzz, and somewhat familiar (though by no means properly competent) with Sketchup.

  2. Pingback: Step-by-Step: putting on the roof | FreeLearners ~ life outside the box

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