Lounging in France 4: Roofs

Robert Heinlein wrote a story, “And He Built A Crooked House,” about SFnal architects. In it one of the laymen says that, broadly speaking, a house is a device to keep the rain off. And this is true. If the house has no roof, it’s not a house, it’s a sheepfold. The most basic of houses is four walls and a roof:

This, a shepherd’s hut, is made of stones laid dry. It would be highly unsatisfactory if you had to live in it for any time — drafty (until you plaster the outside), and in constant need of maintenance otherwise the roof falls in. But it does keep out the rain! Plus, there’s a careful gap at the apex of the roof, laid over with large flat stones, so that smoke can seep out. Tolerable, but you can see how a roof like this would make for a vast improvement:


These are modern replicas of Roman terra cotta roof tiles. There are two kinds of tile in this photo, the flat ones and then the arched ones that cover the joins between the flat tiles. But there are many other tile styles, depending on local custom or conditions. Fired terra-cotta tiles truly last forever — there are roof tiles older than Christianity in museums across Europe.  When they break, you can use the pieces to chink your stone walls before you plaster and stucco. Tiles were the preferred roof material except in areas like northern Europe where you could get slate. They’re less buggy and flammable than thatch. Only recently, with the invention of corrugated metal, have we been able to do it cheaper and better, and now of course there are many modern refinements. The one in this picture is especially fun. As you can see it’s an ordinary modern house with a tile roof. But, to allow more light into the window directly below, there’s a section of clear plastic let into the tile roof. The plastic is, however, shaped like roof tiles. Notice also the modern use of a gutter at the roof edge.


So, you see how it works. You build your house walls out of stone, or timber plus whatever, as in the last blog post. You go as high as you need to, working timbers in if you want to have a second or even third story. Also put in the window and the door openings, because it’s horribly difficult to remodel a stone house. Then you erect a framework for the roof. Houses in northern climates have steeper roofs to shed snow, so you consult local knowledge for the right way. Then, tiles. Plaster it inside and out and you have yourself a house that will stand (with upkeep) for thousands of years. This is the main house recipe (except for things like sod huts) that everyone preferred until the invention of structural steel.




Lounging in France 4: Roofs — 7 Comments

  1. Yes, this is the basic idea for dwellings in areas where timber, stone and/or clay were available or could reasonably be traded for.
    Talking about historic housing in France, this is the template.

    Taking the idea of housing further afield, e.g. in the tropics, you find other sorts of templates, I think.
    In the drier areas, where timber as well as rain is scarce, for permanent dwellings you historically get something like adobe dwellings, instead of stone, timber, or kiln-baked bricks, or wattle-and-daub. Pounded-earth walls plastered with sun-dried clay on the outside (or sun-baked clay ‘bricks’ instead of pounded earth), usually with large roof overhangs to avoid your plaster washing off and your walls slumping in the occasional rains, can be very durable too, though hard to remodel.
    Though I think some of the more desert-like areas tended to make dome-shaped houses instead of roof overhangs (IIRC sometimes half underground for coolth), where the scouring desert winds couldn’t take the roof off, and rain was scarce enough not to pose a risk to your walls or to come flooding in on your low-lying floor & furnishings.

    And then you have all the bamboo-based dwellings in the East, from fishermen’s shacks on stilts in the water to the oiled paper walls in old Japan… A very different set of building styles from the one depicted above, even though they sometimes (depending on the building style and area) used clay roof tiles and timber framing too.


    As a European, it’s interesting to read your musings on living with history all around you in France. I remember when I visited the USA and was a bit baffled by the fuss made about historic buildings and such that were less than 200 years old… recent history deserves to be remembered too, and interesting buildings that are not that old can be given some special attention, but for me it was that sense that for these Americans these 100, 150 or 200 years old sites were HISTORY, nearly all the history there was, and all that was worth remembering of history… They seemed to have no real sense of history going back and back and back through the ages, of the human life we are living now being a continuation of an aeons old tapestry of humans moving forward through time, building on what previous generations built or destroyed.

    It’s hard to put into the right words, but it made the bits of American culture and worldview that we experienced on our holiday seem so ephemeral, not anchored in a solid awareness of the past and so not having a solid base for building on into the future. If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know where you’re going? How do you stop making the same mistakes that others have made in the past?

    Sort of like the mental shock that visiting Lassen gave me. It was the first time I’d experienced an active volcanic region, and the sudden realisation that the so-solid earth under my feet was in fact only a thin crust on the surface of this ball of molten rock that we call home was quite unsettling. A solid spot to stand on, a solid place in time, forever dependable – both are anchors that aren’t equally sure for everyone, and realising that made me re-evaluate some of my own sense of certainties.

    Seeing you going through something a bit similar but in the opposite direction is interesting.

    • In the adobe houses of the Native Americans in the southwest, the most valuable part of the house was the timbers. The roof and walls were easily rebuilt, but to get the long timbers for the roof trusses you had to travel a long way. So, those were the bits that they took away to reuse.
      We may think that everything is driven by local conditions. But actually, it’s driven by money. If you want a Mediterranean manor in northern Virginia, you can have one. (I could show you where it is, in the DC suburbs.) You have to pay heavily for the tile roof, which needs much more maintenance in the snow and ice of the mid-Atlantic, but hey, it’s your money. And, if you want a glass atrium here in the south of France, yeah, as long as you realize it’ll cost fifty times what cinder block will. (Again, a super bad idea, the sun is so hot here. Maybe on the north side of your house, and have a powerful air conditioning system.)
      I regret to say however that what interests me about the building of houses and walls is so as to make it more convincing, when they explode. Stone walls are great until you get cannon, and my characters have cannon!

    • Hi, Hanneke! You are so right about our widespread lack of a grasp of history here in the U.S. Perhaps it contributes to way too much arrogance about “individual rights” by crazy fringe elements acting out now.

  2. Thanks again, Brenda, for more fascinating insights into building. You are a bloodthirsty author, for sure! I think I’d be leery of going into that shepherd’s hut with such a pieced-together roof.

  3. Look up ‘toit de Lauze’ ‘France’in the south west of France -as in the sheperd’s hut but as regular roof in the Perigord region . These are of course old houses. The frame of the houses have to be sturdy to hold the weight but they are centuries old. Perigord is also the area of troglodyte dwellings