Much of the curb appeal of a house is up at the roof level. While we live within the space of a house, and enjoy its environmental comfort, its furnishings and its security, how we feel about the appearance of our houses depends a lot on whether the roof design appeals to us. Terra Cotta tile, wood shingles, copper gutters; the modern appearance of a horizontal cantilever, the ancient look of a steep slate roof with gabled dormers; these elements probably do more to establish the character of our houses than anything else. It’s clear from our own experience that a stucco box with antique clay tile roof has a whole different feel than the same house with cheap composition shingles.
Roofs are where the action is. And for the last thousand years, they have also been where the latest high tech gadgets are on display. In 1100, the average house had a fireplace – meaning a stone or brick lined area in the middle of the floor – under a smoke hole in the roof. Lots of smoke everywhere, and lots of drafts taking away the heat. Then some bright mason thought of creating a shaft to guide the smoke up to the roof. Supporting that shaft required backing up the fireplace with a wall, which to their delight, was found to absorb and re-radiate the heat of the fire.
There followed a few hundred years of experimentation, and the result was the ‘modern’ fireplace with its three sided firebox, smoke chamber above, and tall chimney. Smoke and drafts were controlled, heating improved. Soon every lord and knight had a fireplace or two, the fancier the chimney the better.
Chimney design became so important that some French Chateaus seem like exercises in chimney design, with the building thrown in as an extra.
In the 1700’s, founding father Ben Franklin got us thinking about electricity. He invented the lightning rod and thus started another fad. As before, this functional element was soon refined by the wealthy into a decorative symbol of their importance. Any house without half a dozen many fingered rods was not only unsafe but uncool. Weathervanes also became au courant, and were often combined with lightning rods. You could tell when the storm was coming and know that you were protected.
By the1950’s, chimneys began to lose their appeal as central heating became common. What was the new status symbol? The TV antennae, soon replicated on every roof in America.
A few decades later, and it's satellite dishes. Meanwhile, the chimney is starting to disappear as designers specify high-performance direct vent fireplaces or choose to eliminate the anachronism entirely. Traditional fireplaces are, quite literally, like burning money from an energy efficiency point of view.
So what’s next? As energy costs rise, and as environmental awareness grows, I think we will see a lot more solar panels and wind turbines on roofs; green roofs too. We’ve already seen how celebrities, like Jay Leno, and high tech companies, like Adobe, use wind turbines as a status symbol.
So, power up, be the first on your block to spin, absorb, or grow your roof into celebrity status. And who knows, you might just save the planet.
Now, chill out with the lyrics from Up on the Roof by Gerry Goffin and Carol King. You probably know the tune:
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right in to space
On the roof it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now
When I come home feelin' tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet
I get away from the hustling crowds
And all that rat race noise down in the street
On the roof's the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Oh, let's go
up on the roof….