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Rocking Roofs

The Primary function of a home is to provide shelter. And, arguably, the most important aspect of the envelope that provides this shelter is the roof. Yes, it keeps out the rain, but also–critical to Caribbean living–gives protection from the intense sun and heat.

In designing any building, particularly a home, the planning and configuration of the roofs is critical for many reasons, both functional and aesthetic.

A strategy for the arrangement of the roofs needs to be incorporated into the design inception. It’s not enough to simply plan out the rooms—the designer needs to develop a unique vision for the relationships of the three dimensional volumes and spaces, the site topography, and the structure of the building envelope. The decision of what kind of roof type to adopt will determine the feel and character of the rooms, and is a major factor in defining the external presence and massing of the building.

There are an infinite number of possible roof types, from the most common and basic: hipped, gabled, mono-pitched or flat to variants of the basic types such as mansard, half-hip and tented. There are also the exotic and unusual, including freeform, irregular, triangulated, arched, domed. The designer should approach the choice with an open mind, but whatever decisions are made, the aim should be to relate the interior spaces to the roof layout, so there’s a clear and neat relationship between the inside and the outside.

The most typical form to be found in the islands of the Caribbean is the hipped roof, rectangular arrangements with 45-degree hip rafters sitting on the corners and meeting at a central ridge. Hipped roofs are self-bracing, stable and practical, and perform well in hurricane-force winds.

However, it takes some design skill and careful thought to keep the layout clean and simple. In order for the neat, symmetrical hipped arrangement to work best, the building should be designed from the top down, keeping the roof arrangement in mind at all times whilst planning out the internal spaces.

We often plan our buildings so that there is one hipped roof to each of the main spaces—usually the living areas and bedrooms. Hips falling in the corners of the space and the natural wood of the rafters gives the kind of vaulted, cathedral space which is so desirable in the Caribbean, reminiscent of the lofty, airy and cool great rooms of old colonial residences. In order for this approach to work well, it’s important not to break up the space with irregular walls going up to the underside of the roof, which would interrupt the clarity and simple elegance of the shape.


With these individual hipped spaces making up the main elements of the composition, the other challenge is to connect them up so that neat roof lines are maintained between them and in the places where they join together. Thus, the smaller rooms and circulation spaces can form the linking pieces which tie up the composition. These pieces will usually have either flat roofs, or be pitched to connect the main spaces and form valleys.

The combination of the taller hipped main spaces with the lower linking pieces, if handled well, can produce a building with a pleasing variance, breaking up the mass and visual impact of the volume.

Around the outside of the building, the detail of the eaves is another important functional and aesthetic factor. Projecting eaves overhangs help to protect against rain and sun, but are vulnerable to wind uplift. Alternatively, the eaves can be flush with the walls, which results in a more solid, monolithic appearance and does not present a surface for the wind to get a hold of.

Outside spaces like porches, decks and balconies are often covered by lean-to or shed roofs, which give shelter to the outside space itself, and also help to protect the window and door openings of the main spaces, which can then be left open in the rain.

Of course, each custom home design is unique, and the rules are made to be broken. The roof design of the home makes up the most prominent and perhaps the most important element of individuality and character of the building, whether it’s a wacky asymmetrical extravaganza, or a simple, elegant, traditional solution, the possibilities are endless.

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