Pattern Language No.117: A Sheltering Roof

House in Zakopane, Poland

House in Zakopane, Poland

Architect/theorist Christopher Alexander conceptualized Pattern #117: Sheltering Roof in his 1977 book, A Pattern Language. Alexander identified that the most fundamental and archetypal element defining a home is it’s roof.

More fundamentally, if the roof cannot be felt visually around the home it’s not nurturing, doesn’t satisfy the psychological need for shelter. The roof shelters us when it embraces, covers and surrounds the process of living. Alexander’s insight is that we must make the entire surface of the roof visible, bring the eaves low at gathering places like entries to lend human scale, and build the top story of the building right within the roof.

Minka style traditional Japanese home

Minka style traditional Japanese home

Pattern No.117 is closely tied to Pattern No.116: ‘Cascade of Roofs’, of which Alexander wrote, “Few buildings will be structurally and socially intact, unless the floors step down toward the ends of wings, and unless the roof, accordingly, forms a cascade.”

A strong sense of shelter is probably the most important aesthetic requirement of a work of architecture. But the roof is a sadly neglected element of the vast majority of works being designed today. When the roof is emphasized in contemporary work it is all too often an over-stated “look how big and expensive I am” exaggeration rather than an authentic expression of the nature of shelter-making and security at the subconscious, visceral level.

House number 8, Blaise  Hamlet, England aka Circular Cottage

House number 8, Blaise Hamlet, England a.k.a. “Circular Cottage”.

Neither a large roof nor prominent overhangs by themselves can be sufficient to the task of providing a sense of shelter. The roof, instead, must be an integral to the living spaces which must exist beneath and within the roof itself.

“Circular Cottage” (right) is a rubble stone lime mortar thatched cottage in Blaise Hamlet near Bristol, England. It was designed by John Nash, master of the picturesque architectural style and designer of, among others, Buckingham Palace in London. The cottage, along with the rest of the hamlet, is owned by the UK’s National Trust. The home also demonstrates other timeless patterns making it emotionally attractive such as No.116 ‘Cascade of Roofs’, No.239 ‘Small Panes’, No.242 ‘Front Door Bench’ and No.231 ‘Dormer Windows’.

Entry of Broadleys House, Windermere. Charles Voysey architect, 1898.

Entrance to Broadleys House, Windermere. Charles Voysey architect, 1898.

In each of these examples, although the location, historical era, scale, and style of the home are vastly different, the concept of a shelter-giving roof is not. In each, the roof is a major visual element of the building when seen from a distance. In each one lives within the roof at the upper floor, it flow gently downward to greet us at the entry, and projects strongly outward to provide the necessary sense of comfort and reassurance, all tests of a successful sheltering roof.

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