Mansard Style Roof: The Exciting Return of a Vintage Design

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The mansard style roof once was the cutting edge of architecture. What would Paris be without them? For some reason, however, the style fell out of favor. Luckily though, trends are cyclical. Be it fashion, art, or culture. What once was, will come around again. And with the recent revival of vintage home designs, it is no surprise that the mansard style roof moved back into the public eye.

It reintroduces a traditional building style in a time where heritage fuses with modern technology and materials. Especially in residential architecture, the move towards traditions is most prominent.

What Is a Mansard Style Roof?

Also known as a French roof or a curb roof, its double-sided slopes and secondary pitches easily identify the Mansard roof. Not to be confused with the hip gable or gambrel roof sloping down two sides, the mansard roof frames the building on all sides. The lower slopes are almost vertical, while the higher slopes lie at a much flatter angle, rarely visible from the ground. The design concept essentially breaks the right angles at a minimum to provide adequate drainage while enclosing a maximum amount of space. In the French language, the term mansarde can also mean attic.

Its creator devised it as a smart way to obtain almost an entire floor worth of space. With shingles spanning the entirety of the steep slopes, its contrast to the facade gives buildings a particular visual symmetry.

The lower slope can be straight, convex or concave. There are other variations, such as flaring of the lower slope at the bottom, as well as more than one floor under the structure. However, it almost always features a strip of dormer windows along its lower slope to allow natural light into space.

The style is now commonly used across Europe and America. A synonym for bourgeois residential architecture, it remained popular to this day for its sophisticated urban aesthetic and added spatial value.

History of the mansard style roof

The mansard roof originated in France. Although Pierre Lescot first used this particular roof design in 1550 as part of the Louvre Museum in Paris, it was the French architect François Mansart who popularized the style in the 17th century. And after whom the roof style was eventually named.

Mansart was one of the most prominent architects of the French Baroque period. Only the richest being able to afford his high construction costs, and both the public and up-and-coming architects saw his style as exclusive and aspirational. The style became particularly in demand during the Second Empire (1852–1870). Napoléon III tasked Georges-Eugène Haussmann with the renovation of Paris. It was one of the most extensive urban planning projects in history. In the process, he fully embraced the mansard framing as the uniform roof design for this urban redevelopment.

Its popularity spread to other western countries such as Canada and USA. Contemporaries used the mansard roof framing as the structural element for civic buildings. But later on, the style moved on to private residences as well. The 1916 New York Zoning Resolution encouraged the use of mansard roof design as a form of a setback on tall buildings.

While many have theorized that initially the growing use of mansard roofs spread to avoid window tax in France. Sadly there is very little proof of that anecdote. The most likely explanation seems to lie in subsequent American and French tax codes. Their practices imposed a limit on the number of stories a building could have. They taxed buildings on height, which they measured to the cornice of the roof. The mansard style roof would, therefore, become the ideal way to circumvent these regulations.

Structural elements

mansard styled roof

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There seems to be no rule regarding the proportions or pitch of the mansard roof. According to some construction guidelines, one possible method in outlining the roof frame is to draw a semicircle from one wall to the other and divide it into five equal parts. The points of these five parts will form pitches above the wall plates. Other external factors are to be taken into consideration in determining adequate angles, as well, such as covering material, or climate conditions and the amount of snow seen, for example.

The construction itself is rather straightforward. The wall plate, a horizontal wooden beam attached to the top of the wall that receives the joists of the roof structure, can be either below the attic joists, or above. However, it is rarely more than a couple of feet above the beams, for the dormer windows to come above the plate for structural integrity.

Another plate is placed at the junction of the two sets of rafters, and the lower rafters cut so they can support the plate. The plate, which should be at least 4x6 inches, will receive the upper rafters, as well as the ceiling joist. Depending on if the ceiling is below the curb plate, a purlin might be needed to support the rafters and tied across in sequence. Generally, mansard roofs are often further reinforced by dwarf partitions, placed under the lower rafters.

As for the curve of the roof, it is formed on furring pieces that are positioned on rafters, which primarily take the weight of the roof and distribute it to wall plates. The most often used roofing materials for this roof are Certi-label cedar shakes and shingles. When you buy your materials, be sure to not ask for mansard roof tab shingles. Roof tab shingles are asphalt shingles, and sometimes people mistake them for mansard style roof shingles. Be nice, don't confuse your roofing supplier.

Advantages and disadvantages of mansard roofs

mansard roof style

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As already established, the most significant advantage of the mansard roof is the added living space it provides. This buffer is due to its almost vertical slopes. For this reason, mansard roof remodel is an excellent solution for pitched roof houses. This creates additional space to the upper floor without changing the height of the structure.

Furthermore, the mansard framing allows for an open space plan. Usually supported only at the hip, it leaves room for the flexibility of spatial use and interior design solutions.

If done right, the historical design will also add a designer touch. A cultural flair and sophistication to our contemporary architectural landscape. Perhaps even up the market value of the real estate.

On the other hand, mansard roofs are not the most suitable in areas with harsh weather conditions. The almost flat portion of the roof will not provide the best drainage. Nor will it cope well with heavy rainfall or snow. This strain might result in leakages, or worse yet, a collapse. The design also doesn’t allow for easy gutter cleaning, whether removing snow or other blockages.

The historical aspect of the mansard framing also poses a different challenge. Most likely not a lot of construction professionals will be familiar with the design. Contractors these days have only limited to no experience in Mansard Roofs. Any repairs are going to be expensive as well. Hence make sure to research the options available in your area.

A New Project

The most important aspect of the mansard style roof trend seems to be a renewed appreciation for craftsmanship. In a world of standardized production and uniform design, it provides a touch of old world. A form of connection to the architectural past. The consideration of space, symmetry, and proportions seems to be the necessary link to our original exploration of the world.

There is no doubt about it. If you want a new mansard style roof, or mansard style roof remodel, the road will not be easy. But most things worth it never are. That is what makes them great.

Featured Image via Pixabay

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