What is a Mansard Roof? - Definition & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Roofs can have different appearances while serving similar functions. In this lesson, we'll check out the mansard roof, explore its history, and consider its advantages.

The Mansard Roof

Why do buildings look different? In the end, their intent is to protect us from the elements and create an internal, livable space, right? So why don't all buildings look the same? Because that would be boring! Architecture is not just engineering; it's art. We want it to look cool.

A roof is one place on a building where design becomes important both structurally and aesthetically. There are many kinds of roofs, but one that became quite popular for a while was the mansard style. A mansard roof has four sloping sides, each of which bends at some point. Why make a roof with such a distinct shape? Well, it sure isn't boring.

A mansard roof

Defining and Identifying the Mansard Roof

In technical terms, a mansard is a hipped, gambrel roof. What's that mean? A gambrel roof is one which changes the degree of slope on the inclining sides. Take your hands and hold them straight up, palms facing each other. Now, bend your wrists so that your fingertips touch, forming a triangle. That's a basic roof. Now, bend your knuckles. See how your roof now changes slope? From your fingertips to your knuckles is a gradual slope, but from your knuckles to your wrist is a much steeper slope.

Now, what you just made was not a mansard roof. It was a gambrel roof. A mansard is a hipped gambrel. This means that the roof slopes in all four directions of the building, not just two. So, if the roof slopes in all four directions, but does not bend, it's hipped but not a mansard. If it bends, but does not have four sloping sides, it's a gambrel but not a mansard. If it has four sloping sides, and all of those sides bend, then congratulations: you've found yourself a mansard roof.

A mansard roof has a few other identifying traits. For example, they tend to have dormers, or windows that project out from the roof. This brings light into the attic, and gives architects the option of turning that space into a bedroom or other form of livable interior. The ability to turn the attic into a living space is one of the greatest advantages of the mansard roof. It's also important to remember that after the bend, the lower part of the mansard roof can be straight, convex (curving or flaring outward), or concave (curving or flaring inwards).

A mansard roof changes the degree of slope on all four sides


So where does this unique style come from? The oldest documented use of the mansard style dates to the 16th century, where it was used in Italy, then England, and then France. It's possible that the design was created to give the pitched-roof buildings a flatter look, thus matching the façade of the building. Doing this would let Renaissance architects use Classical motifs from ancient Greece and Rome (which tended to feature flat-front buildings).

The mansard style started gaining popularity in France (check out the roof of the Louvre), but it didn't go by this name yet. That would come in the 17th century. Baroque architect Francois Mansart started creating lavish townhouses and chateaus with hipped gambrel roofs, and the style caught on so quickly that his name became synonymous with it.

A Mansart-designed building with a mansard roof

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