The Joy of Gables

You have walls, you have a roof. In this town you get a lot of roof, with dark blue Welsh slates that shine black in the rain. At the top of the roof is the ridge, where you might see terracotta ridge tiles with patterned profiles – I like the ones with the little holes. Where it reaches down to the wall you have the eaves. Here you find the gutter, sometimes fixed to a board (fancy) or carried on little iron brackets stuck into the brick joints (not so fancy). The top courses of bricks usually reach out by a few inches at the eaves, if it’s at the front of the house they might be fancy specials with beautiful patterns. Nice details. But if you go to the end of the terrace, or the side of the house, it’s all different. The wall goes up and up into the sky all the way to the ridge – it’s not a squat little wall any more, it’s a super wall, pointing up into heaven. That’s the gable – the triangle of wall that shoots up the side of the building and supports the roof beams.

Sometimes you see gables that are very modest – mouldings or pediments only carry a little way around the corner from the street elevation (you see can see that in Malvern, where they have the brown stone) or one of my favourites, the faded painted trade sign. Paint, hardware, ironmongery. Sometimes they just stand there silently. But these are not the ones I’m here to talk about.

Some buildings have a gable front by nature. These are buildings that have narrow frontages and deep plans. The roof has to span across the narrowest width to reduce the height of the roof, the amount of roofing material and the length and outwards thrust of the rafters. These are the timbers that run from the ridge board down to the eaves and there are lots of them. Churches, Greek temples, Netherlands merchant’s houses all show serious gable. These gables are  a celebration of the building, a place to put your best decoration to the street, they show status, power, money and act out the importance of the building to the community, whether the facades are open or closed.

But it is the sky profile that makes it work. The gable is up there, above the neighbours, seen from further away and cutting up into the sky. In the city of streets houses that don’t need gables take the pattern and add it to the roof to break the sky profile of the terrace. A second ridge board strikes out away from the rafters to create a new little roof – or big roof – and a street front gable springs up to reach it. It marks out the house as an individual in the row, makes it taller on the street front and adds to the status of the house. A row of little triangles makes those houses a bit more special, and when the light is right you get a saw tooth shadow cast onto the street below. I want you to look out for this.

For the big fancy houses, gables are a major feature, with black timbers over white render making V’s or grids, and big boards. If you look carefully these gables start from the ground as the brick line takes a step forward to create a deep or shallow projecting bay. This gives you a return coming back from the sides of the gable so that it casts a shadow back onto the house and so that the valley between the main roof and gable roof is away from the frontage. Surrounded by streets of horizontal volumes, these gables make a feature of tall and vertical. In Moseley village, the gables are very tall and they make the public street space special. Go down the wake green road and you will see some added on gables that are asymmetrical and run nearly down to the ground. The tall side shelters the principal windows, the low side creates the entrance porch. That’s the magic of gables.

Author: kingsheatharchitect

I am a RIBA Chartered Architect formerly living and working in Kings Heath, Birmingham, UK.

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