My husband is Swedish. Because of this, we’ve taken the big leap across the very big pond to visit family in Sweden. I’m always taken by the beauty of the land, including the Scandinavian architecture. Just like in America, houses are built in all different styles and colors, but on your first visit to Sweden, you’ll notice many homes are painted yellow ochre or Falu red and have gambrel roofs.
This traditional roof style has even made it to America and become a common architectural delight in older homes. If you are building or purchasing a home, you may come across the unique roof but have no idea what it is. A gambrel roof is one of the many styles found across the country, and like every roof type, it has both advantages and disadvantages.
Being aware of the pros and cons of this type of roof may help you to make decisions regarding a house with a gambrel roof. Let’s take a look at this very fun and historic roof style below. We’ll look at the reasons why it is often used in the applications that it is, what drawbacks may happen because of its shape, and the reasons you may want to consider it on your home.
You may be surprised to learn there are several types of roof styles used in your area. The point of this article is to discuss gambrel roofing, which we will get to in just a moment. However, it will be beneficial for you throughout this article to understand the very common types of roofs as a baseline for the gambrel.
The gable roof is the most basic design out there for a roof. When a little kid draws a house, they are drawing a gable roof on it. It is two slopes that meet at the peak of the roof. The other two ends of the home are completely exposed, quite similar to the gambrel roof.
The hip, or hipped, roof is similar in design to the gable roof. The difference between the two designs is that the hip roof has four sides that meet at the apex of the home, rather than two. These come in slightly different variations but think of this style as similar to the pyramids.
The shed roof was very popular in the 60s and 70s. This style is one slanted roof that will either open with the high end toward the front, the back, or one side of the home. Some other designs borrow from this look and incorporate several slants to give architectural appeal.
A flat roof is exactly what it sounds like: flat. However, no roof is entirely flat because it would cause puddles to form. Instead, most flat roofs are pitched between 1-10 degrees in one direction to guarantee runoff. Flat roofs tend to be the most dangerous for heavy weather areas. When not properly maintained or sealed, the materials can wear away quickly and cause leakage. You’re more likely to find the flat roof in warmer climates with few weather changes.
This is a fun roof visually and is often used when people build additions onto their homes but do not want to rebuild the roof. The salt roof is a cross between a gable and an A-frame. One side is the typical gable roof you see on most houses. The other angle goes from the apex of the roof way down near the ground. It does not go to the ground but will go to the first floor when the rest of the home is two or three stories.
The best visual for this is to picture the logo for the new Avengers movies: one side of the “A” extends much longer than the other.
Most other roof designs are a combination of these types. Again, the gambrel roof is its own design, so let’s look at that one more in-depth now.
What Is a Gambrel Roof?
The picture above really provides everything you need to know. But even though a picture is worth a thousand words, I won’t leave you with just that. This Scandinavia style is also called the Swedish, Dutch Colonial, or New England roof. This roof meets at the top at a shallow slope before taking a very steep decline near the edges of the roof.
For reference, most gambrel roof slopes are 30 degrees for the upper slope, while the steeper slopes are typically 60 degrees. Of course, this isn’t a hard rule, but you’ll find this is standard.
Both sides of the gambrel roof tend to be symmetrical, but in homes, this is not always a guarantee. You’ve likely seen this type of roof before on barns and sheds. Its primary purpose for this style is because it allows more storage space near the roof. This is obvious when you consider the loft space in barns that hold hay bales and other necessities.
For homes, the gambrel roof can run the width of the house, so that one steep side is at the front and the other is at the back of the house, or the gambrel can run the length of the house with the front door on one exposed end of the home (as seen above). This allows for a lot of architectural play when building a home, depending on the feel you want.
The gambrel roofs that run the width tend to feel more like New England Colonial, while the gambrel roofs that run the length will feel like a reclaimed barn and more country chic.
Perhaps the best reason to purchase or build a home with a gambrel roof is to feel like a part of American history. The oldest existing gambrel roof in America is the Peter Tufts House circa 1677. Considering Jamestown was founded in 1607, we’re looking at the gambrel roof making a strong show within the first century of the country’s settlers.
Because New England is the oldest settled part of America, when we look at the architecture from that area, we can see what feels original to America. Many gambrel roof homes are near the water and covered with cedar shingles. While this isn’t the only time we see gambrel-roofed homes, understanding that it is referred to as the New England or Dutch Colonial design puts the vibe in the Colonial Era.
It requires less work and materials to build a gambrel roof, which could be one reason that it was featured so often in early American architecture. To build a gambrel roof, builders only need two beams and gusset joints. Because you’ll save on material and labor costs, this is a great way to save some money when designing your home.
While maintenance on this type of roof is a bit more extensive than the gable roof, replacing the roofing materials is much cheaper than if you had a home with many peaks and valleys on the roof. Also, a common material that is used with gambrel roofs is metal. These metal roofs are known to last about 40 years, which will cut back on needing constant replacements as asphalt shingles would.
The primary purpose of a gambrel roof is that it provides additional room within the attic space. As I mentioned before, this was often used to store farming equipment and supplies within the dry warm space of the barn.
Today’s gambrel roofs give the extra room near the rooftop that allows for additional living space. Many architects add windows and dormers to lift the roof even more so that rooms can have nearly normal height rooms. Modern homes use this space for very high ceilings on single floors or for additional loft space to keep an open floor plan that so many love.
More Natural Light
Another great advantage for a gambrel roof is that there can be a lot of natural light. Look at the many interior pictures of gambrel roof homes, and you’ll see that many have very large windows on either end of the home. Many of these picture windows take up most of the walls where the roof doesn’t cover the façade.
Along with this, some people choose to add skylights in the roof or windows with dormers along the length of the home. Windows at regular intervals are a common look on gambrel roofs, and it would not look symmetrical if they were not consistent. Whether the interior space is set up as an open concept or not, the opportunity to include windows brings in a lot of natural light. Keep in mind that the more dormers you have, the more it will cost to replace the roof in the long run.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that a roof with two slopes – one that is very steep – will provide excellent drainage for rain. The steeper edge keeps rain from the roof and away from any window dormers that you may decide to add to the design. These roofs are also very good for using gutters to collect water and move it to a corner drainage pipe. This protects the house and foundation from extra moisture that could cause the need for maintenance.
Consider the angles of the gambrel roof. Because there are more angles than there are on a simple gable or hip roof, the roofing is more likely to be weathered with time. This weathering will not always happen evenly because the angles are different and because only two roof sides are exposed. Because of this, you’ll want to perform routine maintenance checks.
Some roofers will suggest annual inspections to find leaks or weak areas. The cost of this (and the repairs) will add up over time, especially if you have an inexpensive roofing material that is more likely to weaken and need replacing.
Given the shape and construction of a gambrel roof, owners have complained of ventilation issues. The rounder shape makes it difficult to circulate the air. To fix this, be sure that you add soffit and ridge vents when constructing or replacing the roof. Poor circulation and ventilation mean moisture and heat will remain in the upper-most part of the house, which can cause damage to the paint, drywall, and wood.
You can also install ventilation fans, similar to the ones you find in bathrooms. These allow a way for heat and moisture to escape the attic space. There are three primary types available: turbine, electric, and solar.
Bad with Snow
Because of the low slant to part of the roof, snow will likely stay on that portion of that roof and not slide off as easily as on gable roofs. This means that the collection of snow on this narrow slant will increase a lot of pressure on the roof. Overall, this could cause collapse or leaks if not properly maintained.
One option to combat this is to seek a contractor who can reinforce the trusses and beams of the roof. This is easiest to do when first building the roof, but it can also be done during a renovation or roof replacement. If you live in an area with a lot of snow accumulation, you may want to reconsider a gambrel roof.
Bad with High Winds
Similar to the snow issues that gambrel roofs have, wind can also cause major issues for homeowners. Unlike a hip roof that covers all four sides, two sides are exposed to the wind on gambrel roofs. These exposed sides often have a slight overhang of the roof that can easily be caught by a strong gust of wind.
The shape of the roof means that this home is not aerodynamic at all, meaning it will take the full force of the wind. Under the right circumstances and weather, these roofs can peel right off the home. For this reason, it’s not wise to use a gambrel roof if you live in Tornado Alley or a hurricane-prone zone.
Along with the concerns of snow and wind, rain can eventually cause issues with gambrel roofs. But I said they’re great for drainage, right? I did say that, and I stand by it. However, with low pitch roofs, water can pool in one area causing eventual leakage.
If your upper slant is closing in under 20 degrees, you’ll need to make sure that the roof is completely waterproof. Construction should seal any problematic areas, like around windows and ridges. This is an additional reason for annual inspections: you want to avoid seepage at all costs. It will only cost you more money down the road.
It’s One and Done
What do I mean by one and done? Well, gambrel roofs are very difficult to renovate to or from a different type of roof. If you have a gable roof, it is not impossible to retrofit to a gambrel roof, but it will need to be completely altered, with new construction and a hefty price tag.
If you purchase a home with a gambrel roof and decide it’s not for you, you’ll find that its unique structure and design make it difficult to change designs. In fact, you’ll either need to add an entirely new story or lose an entire floor for your home. It’s best to decide on a gambrel roof when building and keep it as a lifelong commitment, or it’ll cost you.
I know this seems like a lot of contradictions: how can this have a costly replacement if it is more cost-effective to install? When looking at a gambrel roof compared to a traditional gable roof, it will cost more. This is because of the angles. Of course, if you have any dormers for windows, the cost will rise significantly.
Also, let’s be honest, it’s very wise to put out the money for the more expensive, sturdy roofing material (i.e. metal) than the cheaper materials. So, when replacing the roof, it will be less expensive than most roof designs, but it may be more upfront.
Gambrel vs. Mansard
The gambrel roof is often confused with the mansard roof. While these both have two slopes per side, the mansard roof has four sides rather than two. This is quite similar to a hipped roof, which has four sides and all meet at the upper-most point of the roofline.
Having two different slopes for the four sides makes the mansard roof unique. In fact, some mansard roofs only have one slope, with the upper portion of the roof being entirely flat. This is often seen in Victorian homes that have fencing around the top for decoration. This is often the premise of some creepy Gothic homes. Think of the mansion from the Addam’s Family movies or Norman Bates’s home.