The “Westport Vernacular”…. Roof Design

We all care about our town and the homes we design and build.  To that end, I’ve been gathering my thoughts on what I call “the Westport Vernacular” – the local “language” of houses in Westport.

Below is an excerpt about Roof Design in Westport – I hope you find it helpful, and would greatly appreciate your feedback!  (Warning – it is about a 10-minute read, “bookmark” this, you’ll want to refer back to it!)

If you have any questions or thoughts – feel free to reach out at any time. Thanks again!


It’s all about the Roof

I was driving my kids to school, and as we passed by an ongoing home addition, I got that sinking feeling once again. The framing had just been completed, revealing the new form of the home. The rough translation of my internal reaction: “How could any rational person have designed this?” Actually, a flood of thoughts ran though my head…

  • Why didn’t they hire an architect?
  • Didn’t they realize that an architect’s fee would more than have paid for itself when it comes time to sell, or even in terms of enjoying their major investment?
  • Does ANYONE actually think this looks good?
  • I would never in a million years allowed this to happen on my watch…
  • What were they thinking??!!!??

Unfortunately, this episode is repeated all too often. As a builder or homeowner, you probably share similar thoughts as well. Imagine how much more frustrating it is for an architect who has an incurable passion (some might say “inordinate obsession”) for form, order, balance, alignment, aesthetic, and so on…

What was wrong with this addition? Most notably, the new roof refused to acknowledge that the house’s original roof even existed. The low pitch roof of this second story addition had nothing in common with the steeper, existing roof lines. A new portico roof, facing the same direction as this new roof, had an entirely different pitch as well. Any architect would have solved the same addition with a much better look.

My point is to help us all learn and not repeat these common mistakes. We care about our town, and everything we create should be for the better.

The roof is typically the most defining characteristic of a home. Whether simple or complex, it evokes an immediate feeling about that house, either good or bad (note that in my story above, it was the roof that immediately prompted me to write this, not window pattern, siding material, or other design choices).



...the roof evokes an immediate FEELING about a house

…the roof evokes an immediate FEELING about a house


The roof “speaks” to a person on different levels:

At the instinctive level, does it provide shelter? (One of our basic human needs– just watch episode 1 of any season of Survivor). No other part of the home conveys a sense of shelter as the roof does.

At the practical level, is it functional? Will it stand up to wind, rain, snow, heat? Will it last?

At the emotional level, is it beautiful? Does it give that warm fuzzy feeling, or is it just plain ugly?

The first century BC Roman architect, Vitruvius, in his famous writings, listed similar guiding principles for design: Firmness, Commodity, and Delight.



Westport architecture has its own “Vernacular” – an architectural term meaning “the local dialect/language of buildings”. This has been shaped over centuries by climate, geography, local resources, and over the past few decades, by economic and regulatory factors (notably the zoning ordinance). And of course, the major home developers and their architects have especially impacted the “Westport Vernacular” more recently.




What works when designing a roof in Westport? Here are 9 Strategies to keep in mind:

1. Steep Roof Pitches – generally 9:12 or better.

Kind of a no-brainer, but has to mentioned. Steeper roofs are appropriate for our climate, allow for additional living space, and provide a nice aesthetic. Note that Solar PV Panels like to be in the 8-10:12 pitch range for our area. Lower pitch roofs are great for front porches and shed dormers (NOT doghouse dormers – keep them steep) in combination with steeper pitched roofs.

2. Cross Gables and Dormers.

I like a simple, uncomplicated, roof. But, Cross Gables and Dormers can add a lot of interest and appeal. The secret is in the shadowlines they produce; the way the sun moves around a home and casts shadows brings a dynamic movement and life to an otherwise very still structure. I’m huge fan of creating shadows on a home. If you stood a customer in front of a house they liked and asked them what they see, or why they like it, they might answer “white clapboard siding”, or “window grill patterns”, or “rocking chair porch”, but they probably won’t say shadows/variations in depth – this is perceived and appreciated more on the sub-conscious level for most. I just let you in on a secret – “shadows sell homes”.

While features such as cross gables and dormers add interest, there is much to be said about “RESTRAINT” and control. I’ve seen plenty of spec homes that just “overdid it”. Just way too many roofs, way too many varying roof pitches, too many dormers, etc. It is clear the goal was to “impress”, but the result was too much clutter.

3. Consistent Roof Pitches along the same direction.

This should be a no-brainer; but unfortunately it didn’t happen in the case of my opening story. ROOFS THAT FACE THE SAME DIRECTION (for example, gable ends facing the street) MUST ALWAYS HAVE THE SAME PITCH. An exception would be a shed dormer taking a clear “secondary position” to the main roof (see Hierarchy next). Roofs in the opposite direction may have a different pitch, but also should be consistent in that direction. This is a general rule; there are exceptions.

4. A clear, consistent “Hierarchy”.

One of the first design concepts taught in architecture school is that of HIERARCHY – the organization or expression of architectural spaces or elements according to importance. ONE OF THE MOST COMMON ERRORS I SEE IN NEW HOMES is the lack of hierarchy in executing roof design and construction. Here’s how to never make this mistake again: Keep in mind the “main roof” often holds a primary position, and a cross-gable or cross-gambrel may share that primary importance. A shed dormer is secondary to the main roof, thus it should not be treated the same. If the main roof has a shadowboard on the fascia or a deep frieze and a roof return (remember the secret about shadows?), a shed dormer within that roof should NOT have a significant return (I typically prefer no return at all), its overhangs ought to be smaller, its trim should be downplayed. The rake of a dormer should never meet the rake of a main roof (a common mistake). A shed dormer should not have a full return that meets the main roof – it places too much importance on an element that is subservient to the main design. The visual result is a lack of order and harmony, with one roof “competing” for attention against another. The financial result is that you’ll save money on trim. The sales result is that it will sell faster than an identical house with the extra roof trim (given all else the same).

Similarly, dormers should not be higher than the ridge of a cross-gable roof.






Here, the front cross gables (actually designed as simple glorified dormers for simple franing, take Heirarchal Leadersip; thus their rake overhangs are proud of the main roof. This also creates a “Trompe-L’Oeil” effect that the 2nd floor gable front is proud of the main 2nd floor front wall; it is not…         Simpler Framing + Big Effect = Cost Savings + Sell-ability

5. Balance.

As I mentioned earlier, the roof is typically the most visually prominent feature of a home. It is critical for the “massing” of all the roof heights and lines to have visual “balance”.   Driving around town, I see a lot of front facing cross gables whose ridge is to the wrong side of the entry door; and too far to the side of the house.  This creates a visual heavi-ness to one side, throwing a house “out of balance”.   

6. The “Swoop”.

The “swoop” has certainly worked its way into Westport’s Vernacular. Again, CONTROL and RESTRAINT can’t be emphasized enough. The swoop has appeal because the average customer can’t easily fathom the challenge, creativity, and craftsmanship to get it just right. It can ease an otherwise awkward connection between two roof pitches, or it can simply add that extra bit of flair at the eaves. The gentle swoop carefully placed over the front door in an otherwise monotonous porch roof says “come in right here; welcome”. Unfortunately, there are quite a few homes with a swoop or swoops that would have been better off without them. So my advice here is to be very deliberate and purposeful when using swoops; if it doesn’t look all that good on paper, it won’t look good when it’s built either.

7. Dormers should be set properly.

Gable (doghouse) dormers should be set back from the main front wall, so that the roof lands just about 6” below the window on the dormer face. A dormer that is too forward with too much siding showing on the front is generally not attractive. The roof pitch on gable dormers should be equal to or greater than any cross-gable facing the same direction. Gambrel roofs. We’ve all driven by a gambrel roof that has inspired us, and we’ve driven by gambrels that, well, are just plain ugly. Either too wide, or top-heavy or “boxy”; sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s wrong. It’s a combination of Art and Science, but here are some practical tips for making one good-lookin’ Gambrel. The top and bottom fascia lengths should be nearly equal. A gambrel wants a decent overhang (there’s that shadowline secret again!). The angle from a bottom corner to the ridge should be around 45 degrees. When there is a “shed extension” beyond the gable front end; there should be no returns on the shed roof.

8. Porch Roofs.

We can make an exception to the “same pitch” rule for front porch roofs (both for gables and sheds). In fact, it would be a no-no in most cases for a porch gable to be as steep a pitch as a main gable above it. If I could rewrite our zoning ordinance, I’d make an exception to allow front porches in the front yard setback (similar to New Canaan’s regulations). The front porch should be seeing a comeback in spec houses; they connect the house to the community, the homeowners to guests and neighbors, and are special place where people like to be. And again, some deep shadowlines to make a house beautiful.


The gentle swoop carefully placed over the front door in an otherwise monotonous porch roof says “come in right here; welcome”.



9. The IRONY of our Zoning Ordinance.

Generally speaking, if you are building on a half-acre lot or larger, the zoning regulations won’t have much of an impact on your design (it does happen though, usually in regards to roof height). But, if you are trying to get as much house as you can in a nonconforming lot in the “B-residence” zone, south of the railroad tracks, I guarantee that the zoning regulations will play a major role in the roof design. The IRONY is that in most cases where I’ve solved difficult building height or meeting the “Attic definition” issues for clients (where the regulations attempt to severely limit the house’s size), the design ended up being larger than zoning intended. A local architect who is intimately familiar with the regulations, who is friendly with the zoning officials, and who can creatively craft a solution that works, is a tremendous asset in this regard.


You’ve made it this far?  Congratulations!  We’re almost through.  Here’s a quick visual summary of some of the points outlined above (a “What to do vs. What NOT to do comparison)…




Well, that was a long one, but hopefully helpful.  Perhaps you picked up one or two thoughts that you’ll keep in mind for your next project.  Perhaps you’ve been using these design principles, but now you understand the “why”. In any case, you’re a trooper for reading through all this.

Disagree with anything here?  Have your own thoughts to add?  Please let me know – This is about all of us getting better at what we do – Thank you!



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