The Deep Truth of a Sheltering Roof

The roof plays a primal role in our lives. The most primitive buildings are nothing but a roof. If the roof is hidden, if its presence cannot be felt around the building, or if it cannot be used, then people will lack a fundamental sense of shelter. – Christopher Alexander

Traditional farmhouse from Løten, Norway

So, the question is, why not? Why does this taboo exist? What is this funny business about having to prove you are a modem architect and having to do something other than a pitched roof? The simplest explanation is that you have to do these others to prove your membership in the fraternity of modern architecture. You have to do something more far out, otherwise people will think you are a simpleton. But I do not think that is the whole story. I think the more crucial explanation… is that the pitched roof contains a very, very primitive power of feeling. Not a low pitched, tract house roof, but a beautifully shaped, fully pitched roof. That kind of roof has a very primitive essence as a shape, which reaches into a very vulnerable part of you. But the version that is okay among the architectural fraternity is the one which does not have the feeling: the weird angle, the butterfly, the asymmetrically steep shed, etc. — all the shapes which look interesting but which lack feeling altogether. The roof issue is a simple example. But I do believe the history of architecture in the last few decades has been one of specifically and repeatedly trying to avoid any primitive feeling whatsoever. Why this has taken place, I don’t know. — Christopher Alexander

This is a modernist’s taboo, after 100 years of modernism they still suffer from a
severe phobia of pitched roofs. The picture is from Evanger, Norway.

Today too many within the ‘green movement’, even within the permaculture movement, have been bitten by the monsters of modernity. To be ‘creative’ means in this world view to contradict what feels natural, the simplest of all, the pitched roof. Here we have the deep truth of a sheltering roof — it’s the simplest thing to create, and thus it’s the most natural thing to do. Nature never makes anything out of creativity, just out of simplicity, and this is why nature can be so complex.

Try to imagine this old Norwegian forest farmhouse with a
butterfly roof
. It drives you crazy, doesn’t it?

In early times the city itself was intended as an image of the universe — its form guarantee of the connection between the heavens and the earth, a picture of a whole and coherent way of life. – Christopher Alexander

For Christopher Alexander this is wholeness.
For Peter Eisenman it is not. Photo: Toksave

What we have not been able to get at yet is that it is possible to project a totally different cosmology that deals with the feelings of the self. Alternative views of the world might suggest that it is not wholeness that will evoke our truest feelings and that it is precisely the wholeness of the anthropocentric world that it might be the presence of absence, that is, the nonwhole, the fragment which might produce a condition that would more closely approximate our innate feelings today. – Peter Eisenman

Peter Eisenman is a nihilist. In a nihilistic world there is no wholeness, it’s just the self. The 20th century became "The Century of the Self". The success of consumerism was fulfilled when industry, through advanced psychological techniques, made everyone feel ‘unique’. No more was there to be any ‘wholeness’ other than self, where the world is a non-whole expressed through each person’s ego. When all people’s needs were fulfilled, the only way to continue growth was from turning the economics and our society from needs to desires, and the strongest tool to use was human desire for uniqueness, the self.

After community was broken and fragmented through the modernists’ separation and segregation ideals, the only thing left was individuality, and humans were easily manipulated to feel ‘unique’ through the products offered them by industry. Modernist architects made an unholy alliance with industry to preach uniqueness through their architecture, to boost consumerism. Students of architecture are still drilled to keep this wheel rolling.

Peter Eisenman won the 20th century, not Alexander, and this is no wonder as community lost its value before Alexander entered the stage. For Eisenman there is no reality, a non-whole, while for Alexander reality is wholeness. All that the starchitects buildings say is; Look at me, look at me! While Alexander’s buildings say there is no me, as I’m part of the whole, and the whole is parts whose only purpose is to create strong wholes. All expressed in Alexander’s theory of centers.

Traditional religious texts are founded upon morality stories that help humanity to see beyond the limitations of human beings existing as animals or purely subjective beings. But none of this is ever incorporated into architectural teaching today — which still turns to the same peculiar handful of (Western) philosophers, relying upon them to justify “architecture for architecture’s sake”. Judging by how inhuman its forms are, the driving ideology is purely nihilistic, even as it serves global capital.

The separation between nihilism and humanism is total and uncompromising, however. We have to choose very carefully which philosophers, and which texts to offer students for their reading assignments. A school cannot abrogate its responsibility by teaching architecture as a set of self-serving beliefs.

In the twentieth century, architecture became a mass movement under the influence of leading architects who exploited specific philosophical texts to support their ideals and to promote themselves. Architecture detached itself from any higher order in human existence, turning away from both nature and from the sacred. It was the first time in human history that humans began to intentionally create unnatural structures that are uncomfortable to inhabit and to experience. – Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden II

Further, architecture up until our time was a generative process, fundamentally different from the mechanical process practiced today. This is the process of nature, and if we again want to become part of nature — and what more can we aspire for — we need to return to this process.

For example the temporal priority issue is very different from current practice. If someone has built something, then the person who comes later must legally pay attention to what is there and respond to it. This process is akin to weaving, that is, the next act always responds to the previous act and completes it. Compared to current law, in most US cities, that provides each person the same rights, regardless of the temporal sequence. Thus each project, and each lot, becomes an isolated island, with no significant relation to the whole, and is unable, for the same reason, to intensify the context in which it is located. A fundamental principle that was explicit in traditional generative processes is that a new construction shall not do harm to its surroundings. This is in reverse to the current approach of zoning law that is followed in most US cities, which implicitly accepts that each case is different, by applying strict geometrical regulations blindly. Another important practice in traditional generative processes is negotiating decisions that may cause harm to the surroundings and the means to avoid them. – Besim S. Hakim

I beg everyone planning for a pocket neighborhood, ecovillage or village town, to make it an expression of Alexander’s wholeness and not Eisenman’s ego. The sheltering roof is a natural part of this wholeness. Please read the legendary 1982 debate between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman to get a better understanding of these two diametrical different worldviews. You’ll find it here.

In other words, the order I was sketching out last night is ultimately, fundamentally an order produced by centers or wholes which are reinforcing each other and creating each other. Now, if all of that is so, then the pitched roof would simply come about as a consequence of all that — not as an antecedent. It would turn out that, in circumstances where one is putting a roof on a building, in the absence of other very strong forces that are forcing you to do something different, that is the most natural and simple roof to do. And, therefore, that kind of order would tend to reappear — of course, in a completely different, modern technological style — simply because that is the nature of order, not because of a romantic harkening back to past years. You probably understand this. — Christopher Alexander

If you could ask the traditional farmer why he built this kind of
a ‘boring’ pitched roof on his house, he would just look at you as if you’re silly.

No contemporary architect would admit this is a beautiful house.
Maybe "cozy", meaning it’s kind of kitsch for ignorant people.

I live in the boreal region, and here the warmth and embrace of a sheltering roof is of extraordinary importance to endure the dark, cold winters — like a grouse sheltering her chicks under her warm wings. Just the sight of a sheltering roof makes me feel warm inside. No other roof can do that!

The sheltering roof is to be found all over the world. It’s universal and
inherent to human biophilia. This one is from an old Japanese village.
Photo: Yosemite

A pair of wings of a grouse is like a sheltering roof. I hope you can both see
and feel the similarity? It’s like the embrace of a woman, the sensitivity of a poem.

What constitutes the charm to the eye of the old-fashioned country barn but it’s immense roof — a slope of grey shingle exposed to the weather like the side of a hill, and by its amplitude suggesting a bounty that warms the heart. Many of the old farmhouses, too, were modeled on the same generous scale, and at a distance little was visible but their great sloping roofs. They covered their inmates as a hen covered her brood, and are touching pictures of the domestic spirit in its simpler forms. — John Burroughs, Signs and Seasons, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914, p. 252

Old Norwegian barn. Photo: Jensens

This article started with a quote from A Pattern Language, it’s now time to go back to this book of wisdom to find out more about what it has to say about our topic. Pattern 117, Sheltering Roof (the original text includes illustrations and wonderful pictures):

This sheltering function cannot be created by a pitched roof, or large roof, which is merely added to the top of an existing structure. The roof itself only shelters if it contains, embraces, covers, surrounds the process of living. This means very simply, that the roof must not only be large and visible, but must also include living quarters within its volume, not only underneath it. — A Pattern Language, page 570

We believe that this connection between the geometry of roofs, and their capacity to provide psychological shelter, can be put on empirical grounds: first, there is a kind of evidence which shows that both children and adults naturally incline toward the sheltering roofs, almost as if they had archetypal properties. — A Pattern Language, page 571

The space under or on the roof must be useful space that people come in contact with daily. The whole feeling of shelter comes from the fact that the roof surrounds people at the same time that it covers them.

Seen from afar, the roof of the building must be made to form a massive part of the building. When you see the building, you see the roof. This is perhaps the most dramatic feature of a strong, sheltering roof. — A Pattern Language, page 572

And a sheltering roof must be placed so that one can touch it — touch it from outside. If it is pitched or vaulted, some part of the roof must come down low to the ground, just in place where there is a path, so that it becomes a natural thing to touch the roof edge as you pass it. — A Pattern Language, page 572-573

Painting by Camille Flers, 1848. Photo: Philippe Alès

Another Japanese house with a thick thatched roof, embracing and warming
its inhabitants. These houses are as much a part of nature as the mountains
glimpsed in the background. This is because of their simplicity, it’s completely
ego-free, like nature is. Photo: Yosemite


Slope the roof or make a vault of it, make its entire surface visible, and bring the eaves of the roof down low, as low as 6’0" or 6’6" at places like the entrance, where people pause. Build the top story of each wing right into the roof, so that the roof does not only cover it, but actually surrounds it. – A Pattern Language, page 573

Some permaculturists are eager to cover every roof in the world with hard, smooth and shiny solar cell panels. I will advise to think twice! Without respecting our sensory system and its need for natural materials and geometry, we cannot acheive a society that’s in balance with nature.

Architecture connects to the human consciousness via the smallest details, whether those buildings are in a traditional, or a Modernist style. The psychological need for detail at the smallest perceivable scale is illustrated by the widespread use of natural surfaces such as polished wood and stone, whenever it is economically feasible. Such surfaces provide an emotional connection to details well below 1 mm in size. The eye actually perceives the natural structures that characterize real wood or marble, even though they are at the limit of visual perception. One is not easily fooled by Formica even at a distance.

It is possible to highlight the connection between an observer and the microscopic structure of materials, which is obtained via the scaling hierarchy. From the human scale on down, there exists an infinite hierarchy of decreasing scales connecting us to the basic components of matter. This downward scaling links man to the microcosm, and is just as important as the more obvious connection to the larger scales. We establish a strong connection to materials that have a clear hierarchical microstructure, but not to featureless materials that are either amorphous, transparent, or highly reflective.

Materials lacking in natural qualities often result in unresponsive surfaces. That is in part due to the ways they are employed. Modern materials, which as a rule have no ordered microstructure, can establish an emotional connection only through the scaling hierarchy. One needs to differentiate surfaces and to articulate subdivisions much more than with natural materials. That might involve combining matte with shiny materials, and re-introducing detail and color. We do not advocate copying natural materials, but rather finding expressive means to utilize each material’s own intrinsic capabilities. – Nikos A. Salingaros

Clay stone roof tiles with lichen, a material that ages with dignity

Norwegian wooden roof tiles

A slate roof covering

No human made materials can replace the biophilic effect of natural materials. As the roof is such a fundamental part of a house and our lives, we should be careful not to damage this effect, as this can easily be damaging for our own well-being.

Photo: Jebulon

The most primitive buildings are nothing but a roof. If the roof is hidden,
if its presence cannot be felt around the building, or if it cannot be
used, then people will lack a fundamental sense of shelter.
— Pattern 117, Sheltering Roof. Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim


  1. Really enjoyed this article on roofs. I agree whole heartedly, though quite honestly prior to reading this I may not have been able to tell you why I was or am attracted to a sheltering roof. Some unspoken comfort!

    I can honestly say I would have enjoyed seeing some ‘don’t do this’ roofs as a contrast.
    Perhaps after having acknowledged and begun to understand the why I am drawn to sheltering roofs, the contrast of repulsion would have been nice as well, if only for the EEWWWWW factor!

    Well done and thanks for the eye opener. The sheltering roof has an unspoken sublime quality to it.

  2. Hi Oyvind,

    Hope you are well. I was reading your article and going, “yeah architects really do create some visually jarring buildings”. I built my own house here (by my own hands, not contracted out either) and included a 34 degree pitch in the roof to effectively shed water (which is collected for use here), leaves, bushfire embers etc.

    You can have a look at it here:

    The photo of the house is in its not quite finished yet stage. I now have some steel stairs at the main entrance with steel roses and flowers woven through them, built by a local blacksmith.

    However, I then got to the bit about solar panels and thought that there is beauty even in these hard artificial surfaces. Perhaps you may remain unconvinced, but they do look far better than any gas, coal or nuclear power plant and the reality is that these are the alternatives.



  3. @Chris;

    I’ll let this picture speak:

    Maybe it’s possible to make solar cell panels with fractal properties, to be applied on roofs:

    But with the modernists hold on media and industry I doubt this will happen.

    Without fractal scaling in our living environments our mental batteries will be rapidly tapped, not charged like in fractal-rich environments mimicking nature.

    By the way, I think you’ll find these new batteries interesting:

  4. Hi Oyvind,

    What were they thinking? It looks like a top hat. hehe! This is a somewhat extreme installation, and it is also very unsympathetic to the style of the house.

    By the way I note that the exposed timber on the external walls is quite organic in its layout. Is this an old house or a reproduction as I am unfamiliar with the style?

    As to the battery, when I see a commercially available battery I’ll be more excited. Big capacity batteries are scarily expensive!



  5. @Chris, that kind of timber frames are typical for old German houses. I’m not sure if the infill is only a clay/straw mixture or if they used brick stone with a layer of mortar on? If some of the readers know more about the technique I should be happy to know.

  6. Hi Oyvind,

    It would be interesting because I was wondering how they’d insulate the external walls? Especially as it would get a more extreme environment than where I am, possibly less so than yours though. It is great to see the natural shape of the timbers in the house.


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