House Design Flat Roof V.S. Pitched Roof

When it comes to looking at houses and deciding which house is right for you, it is critical to think about the functional design of a house. In the realm of house design, there is arguably no more influential element than the roofline. The roofline defines the look of a house more than any other attribute and the shape of the roofline will determine how the roof protects the house from rain, wind, sun and snow.

This simple and practical roofline will shed water well and provides the home with protection from the elements.

This simple and practical roofline will shed water well and provides the home with protection from the elements.

A common question I get during my home inspections is whether flat roofs are less desirable than sloped roofs. I love this question because it gets at the logic that can be employed to see how a given house design will predict required maintenance.

Are there really flat roofs?

To begin, I’d like to clear up a commonly misused word to describe a flat roof. You should never really encounter a truly flat roof. All roofs should be sloped to drain. Water weighs over 8 pounds / gallon and you never want to turn your roof into a swimming pool; roofs are generally not framed to support significant ponding water. So, it would be more accurate to consider a sloped roof V.S. a low slope roof. I used flat roof in the title because I felt this was common usage.

How to measure a roof slope

The standard way to measure a roof’s pitch is by its fall over 12 inches. A roof that falls 1 inch over 12 inches is called a 1 and 12 and would be considered low slope.

  • Low slope roofs are generally pitches of 3 and 12 or less.
  • Sloped roofs are generally 4 and 12 and greater.

Low slope roofs: the roofing type

Low slope roofs need to have a membrane system as a roof covering. Membranes are generally sheets of roofing material installed in such a way that the roof would not leak if standing water were present. There are a multitude of different membrane systems: torch-down, single-ply and built-up being the most common. You cannot use shingles on roofs with pitches less than 3 and 12 and even a 3 and 12 requires special installation techniques to prevent leaks and failure.

Low slope roofs: as good as the installation

Low slope roofs have a well-earned reputation for being troublesome. Because they do not shed water well they are more likely to have leaks and leaks on flat roofs can be a real pain to track down; you can find yourself chasing water which is never fun and can make roof replacement the only sure-fire option for repair. Combined with comparatively more expensive installation cost and shorter useful service life, low slope roofs are generally higher maintenance roofs than sloped roofs….. However…..

Like all roofing systems, a lot depends on the quality of the installation. Some of the newer single ply membranes are coming with 50 year warranties. It is unclear if they will perform reliably for this long, but they seem to be generally a superior product to some of the older membrane systems if installed well. Many older membrane systems like torch down often have about 10 years of life without much care and then another 5-15 years where on-going patching and repairs are needed.

This low slope had a well-installed new membrane, but it is not shedding water well. This could lead to premature leaks and the ponding could get worse as the weight of the water continues to depress the roof. .

This low slope roof had a new single-ply membrane, but it is not shedding water well. This could lead to premature leaks and the ponding could get worse as the weight of the water continues to depress the roof.

The advantage of low slope – good overhangs and good light

See how the siding and windows are protected by roof overhangs here.

See how the siding and windows are protected by this moderately sloped roof overhang here.

The one real advantage to a low slope roof is if the building also comes with large roof overhangs (where the plane of the roof hangs out past the walls of the house.) Some houses have low slope roofs with large overhangs and because the roof is low slope, the roof overhangs do not block your windows. This design affords good protection of the house and nice interior light. While you do have a generally higher-maintenance low slope roof, this should come with lower maintenance siding, windows, doors and decks as they are protected by the roof. This can be a great trade off. Contrast this with a pitched roof house that does not have the benefit of a roof overhang. Such a house may have the benefit of a sloped roof, but the increased maintenance costs for the exposed siding, trim, windows, doors and decks could far exceed the additional maintenance costs of a low slope roof. The bottom line: roof overhangs are your friend when it comes to reducing exterior maintenance.  

This old wood window is on the south face of a Tudor home with no roof overhangs. The lack of roof protection caused this window to fail before others that were better protected.

This old wood window is on the south face of a Tudor home with no roof overhangs. The lack of roof protection caused this window to fail before others that were better protected.

The advantage of a pitched roof

Pitched roofs are generally less expensive to install and last longer than low slope roofs. This is because shingle systems are easier to install than membrane systems and shingles cost less. This is a generalization that depends a great deal on the type of roofing material you install but is a good guiding principal. My personal favorite pitch for a roof is a 5 and 12; this pitch sheds water well but is not too steep – you can still have good roof overhangs to protect the building and the roof is just shallow enough in pitch that you can walk on the roof to service it. Roofs steeper than 5 and 12 are difficult to walk on.

Look at the nice solid bones of this house - sight your eye along this elegant, strong and simple roofline.

Look at the nice slope of this 5/12 pitched roof

Watch out for complex roof lines

A great guiding principle when looking at rooflines is that complex rooflines are more likely to be a problem than simple rooflines. A complex flat roof may have lots of things stored on it like HVAC systems and ductwork. It might have lots of penetrations like skylights and vents. It might also have lots of intersecting roof plains like roof to wall junctures. Sloped roofs could have a myriad of intersecting planes, roof to wall junctures, deck intersections or valleys draining at the sides of the house. Be wary of complex rooflines whether sloped or low slope. Bottom line: When it comes to low maintenance rooflines, simplicity is your friend.

In this remodel the desire for a feel and floor plan inside created a complicated roof that drains into a wall of the house; a high-maintenance design.

In this remodel the desire for a feel and floor plan inside created a complicated roof that drains into a wall of the house; a high-maintenance design.

One of my favorite low-maintenance roof designs is the shed roof. This is just a single tilted plane of a roof and even if it is low-slope, the design is usually so simple that problems are less likely.

In conclusion

You would be wise to consider the relative benefits and drawbacks of various rooflines as you look at houses to buy. Do not underestimate the value of a good roofline. If low exterior maintenance is what you are looking for, seek homes with generous roof overhangs and simple rooflines.

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