Gambrel style homes incorporate a type of architectural design that features a roof with two different slopes on each side, with the lower slope being steeper than the upper slope. This design often results in a distinctive “barn-like” appearance. The gambrel roof creates extra space in the attic, which is often converted into living space. Other common features of Gambrel style homes include symmetrical facades, a central front entrance, and dormer windows. They were popular in the late 17th century and early 18th century, and can be found in the New England area and in Dutch Colonial style architecture.
A gambrel is a symmetrical two-sided roof with two slopes on each side. Typically, the upper slope is positioned at a shallow angle, while the lower slope is steep. This design provides the advantages of a sloped roof while maximizing height inside the building’s upper level. Further, framing for a gambrel roof requires short timbers which were more readily available when the earliest gambrel roofs emerged in New England.
While the pitch of the lower and upper roofs of the gambrel vary in degrees, the upper pitch is typically around 60 degrees, while the lower pitch is around 30 degrees. The construction of a gambrel roof begins with the installation of a ridge beam, which sits at the top of the roof and supports the upper pitches on both sides. Rafters are installed running from the ridge beam down to the eaves on both sides, forming the two pitches. Finally, the roof is covered with shingles or other roofing materials. Some Gambrel roofs have additional structural support, like a collar tie, to prevent rafters from splaying outwards.
“Gambrel” is a Norman English word, referring to a wooden bar used by butchers to hang the carcasses of slaughtered animals. It is said that the two-slopes of a gambrel roof create a form that resembles a butcher’s gambrel when in use (see image below).
Possibly the oldest surviving house in the U.S. with a gambrel roof is the Peter Tufts House (1678) located in Medford, MA. Some historians consider this house to also be the oldest all-brick house in the United States.