Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Have you noticed the shape of roofs?

The extension to The Lodge residential home was nearing completion in December.  It can be seen from outside the Mount Radford Inn, looking along College Road.  Have a look at its roof – there are vents in small gables built into the slope of the tiles.  Now compare it with the roof of your own home – what is different and why?

Although the basic concept of a roof is a simple one – to make a building weatherproof – there are a multitude of different styles in a neighbourhood such as ours.  Ask a child to draw a house, and they are fairly certain to give its roof a slope at left and right, identifying the difference between the vertical house walls and the covering.  Such a roof is hipped, but is only one of several popular designs in the neighbourhood.  Hipped (or simply hip) roofs limit the possibility for attic space compared with those where the roof only slopes on two sides (pitched and gable roofs).  Look at the older houses with the latter roof style and you will often find a window set into the angle of the two slopes, suggesting an attic or loft room. 

Then gables can be created at right angles to the ridge, over a projection in the frontage of the house, or as a decorative feature.  The strange animal above the pharmacy in the village is on such a gable, but it is a gable with a most unusual variation.  Stop and have a look (if it is safe to do so) next time you are passing.  Behind the beast, there is a gable, and behind that the roof ridge rises above that of the building, exaggerating the height of the fa├žade.  A case of architectural bragging!

From the early years of the twentieth century, skylights began to be fitted into some houses – windows replacing tiles or slates and providing illumination into the otherwise dark roof spaces.  If your first thought is to call a skylight a “Velux” you are using a commercial name (like “Hoover” and “Biro”) to describe all similar products.  Velux originated in Denmark but is now a worldwide company.  Modern roof materials can be so efficient that it is necessary to provide vents to prevent mould.

Flat roofs appear in St Leonard’s, not just in modern architecture, but in a small number of older properties – especially blocks of flats.  Developments in technology mean that they are generally more waterproof than the notorious leaking flat roof of Castle Drogo.  (Sir Edwin Lutyens, architect of Drogo, created many houses whose tiled roofs were an integral and eye-catching part of the design, rather than an afterthought.)  The ingress of water through roofs causes many problems in other types of building; Victorian builders of churches delighted in providing problems for successive clergy and congregations by concealing gutters behind brick or stone facades, creating gulleys which fill with debris – and are very difficult to reach and clean.  (Rather than use scaffolding, these days, inspectors increasingly look at church roofs with drones.)

Old Matford, in Wonford Road, supposedly the oldest inhabited private house in Exeter (cathedral houses in The Close are older) was probably once thatched; there remain a few thatched properties in the city, but none in this neighbourhood.  On one side is the Church of the Latter-Day saints, whose roof is in the saltbox style, with two sides of unequal length.  Almost opposite is the Nuffield Hospital which has a form of mansard roof, with the top floor windows surrounded by the same material used for the roof covering.  More typical mansard roofs are found associated with the two storey prefab houses erected after the Second World War in Countess Wear and Heavitree.  And, additionally, in the main block of The Lodge, in Spicer Road, which takes us back to where we started.  

Take a look around the neighbourhood; what other shapes of roof can you find?

(Printed in the January - February 2018 issue of Neighbourhood News)