What is a Gable Roof? - Definition & Types

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are a few basic kinds of roofs that cover most of our modern architecture. In this lesson, well explore the gable roof, and check out a few styles of this structure.

The Gable Roof

If you ask any five-year-old to draw you a gable roof, they could. Know why? Because that's what most of us automatically think of when drawing your average stick-family home. Go ahead a try it: get out a piece of paper, draw a big square and place a triangle over it. That's a gable roof. Now add some stick figures in the lawn - let's really see this thing through. While you're doing that, think about that roof. A gable roof is one which only slopes in two directions and is open on the ends. It's good enough for your stick family, and frankly it's good enough for most of us as well.

House with a gable roof
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Components

While the concept of the gable roof may seem simple, it's actually composed of a few different pieces. Imagine plucking that roof off of the house - what shape is it? It's essentially a long, triangular prism, right? There are three vital components to this roof structure. The two sides of the roof are sloped at an angle. In architecture, we say that the roof is pitched. These pitched (sloped) sides meet along a central ridge that runs parallel to the length of the house. So what's left? How about that vertical, triangular section of the wall exposed between the pitched sides on each end? Those are the gables themselves, the parts of the wall that extend from the bottom of the eaves to the peak of the ridge. The gables are what give this style of roof its name.

In this simple illustration of a house with a gable roof, the triangular section just below the roof is the gable itself
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Types of Gable Roofs

Look at your stick-figure drawing of a house. We can now clearly identify that as a gable roof, but what kind of gable roof is it? Architects can adjust the design of the gable roof to meet their needs, but in general, we can organize them into one of four categories. The one that you drew for the stick-figure family is known as a front-gable house. In a front-gable house, the main entryway or aesthetic emphasis of the structure is on the wall shared by the gable. This generally means that the gable is facing the road or main entrance.

Imagine rotating that building 90 degrees, however. Now the gables are on the side, unseen, and you're facing the side of the house with the pitched roof sloping down from the ridge. If your main entrance or visual focus is on this side, not the side with the gable, then the house can be said to be side gabled.

Both front- and side-gabled roofs are pretty simple, covering a basic, rectangular building. Many architects, however, prefer to create more complex interior space, which means that the house won't be a simple rectangle. Hold up your pointer finger. Imagine that it is the ridge of a gabled house. Now take your other pointer finger and lay it perpendicular over the first. See how you made a basic cross shape? This house now has two different and intersecting rooflines, each with a ridge supporting a pitched, gable roof. We call any superstructure with two or more such rooflines a cross-gable roof. It's a common way for architects to add more interior space and add visual dynamism to the building.

Finally, let's talk about the Dutch. A common variation of the gable roof is commonly called the Dutch roof, or more accurately, a gambrel. Try this: make the shape of a gable roof with your hands by making your fingertips touch and keeping your palms flat, sloping outwards. That's a gable roof. Now, bend your knuckles. See how the slope from your fingers to your knuckles becomes shallower, but then the slope from your knuckles to your wrist becomes very steep? A gambrel is a gable roof that changes slope at some point, going from shallow to steep. Since it was commonly used in Dutch construction, notably in Dutch-style barns, this is sometimes called a Dutch roof.

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