Adding a roof dormer to a town house is often the best way of increasing internal floor space without encroaching on the garden. This article deals with the way dormers look and the trade-off homeowners face between increasing floor space and conserving an aesthetically pleasing roofline. A second article will deal with the practicalities of dormer construction and design.
Despite the lure of large attic rooms with full head height, many of us are put off dormers by their intrinsic ugliness. Our first childhood drawings include square houses with pitched roofs meeting at a neat apex. Adding a large square appendage to one side shatters symmetry and displeases the eye.
Planners seek to ameliorate visual drawbacks in two ways. The first is to encourage dormers on the rear of houses thereby conserving street views. Permitted development rights usually allow householders outside conservation areas to build rear dormers without planning permission. Planner’s second tack has been to encourage applicants to set dormers back from the structural wall of the house and conserve an area of pitched roof and the gutter line in front of the dormer.
The problem with rear dormers is that, unlike local authorities, householders are often more concerned about the rear aspect of their houses than the view from the street. The view from the back garden is what we most enjoy during balmy summer evenings in front of the barbeques. Furthermore, on many streets the back of houses is just as visible as the front.
Setting dormers back from the external wall is, generally, good practice. However, it involves a direct trade-off between improvement in external aesthetics and the reduced amount of internal floor space. Furthermore, setting back a dormer off the structural wall requires the installation of steel beams to take weight. This incurs extra cost and is only possible if there are lateral structural walls to rest the steel on.
The bad news is that improving the external appearance of dormers invariably cost money. The cheapest dormers are, quite literally, plastic boxes clad in UPVC sidings, adorned with uPVC windows, trimmed with uPVC facias and gutters and roofed with fibreglass. We’ve all seen these monstrosities. I fully understand that hard pressed families in need of an extra bedroom might not have a choice. But ugly architecture does inflict a cost on society and should be avoided where possible.
Over the years Vintage Property Restoration has developed three main strategies for improving the external appearance of dormers.
A first strategy ideal on large high roofed Victorian houses is to give dormers a pitched or gabled roof as opposed to “modern” flat roof. Many Victorian houses were built with roof gables. These may have been simple aesthetic additions that made houses look bigger and more grandeurs or they may have provided windows and additional headroom to servant’s quarters on the top floors. In the house pictured right, the right hand gable was part of the original house built around 1900 and the left hand gable was added by Vintage Property Restoration in 2014. Here the new structure was built straight off the wall of the property thereby taking advantage of most of the available extra floor space.
A second strategy evident here and in the two side dormers pictured below is to fashion the dormer fronts and the gabled facia boards to match other parts of the house.
Planners often encourage householders to use roofing materials, slates or tiles, to clad the front and cheeks of dormers. This leads to rather sinister black boxes. Personally I find the use of roofing materials on vertical surfaces just looks wrong. A much better solution is to harmonise with the materials used on the lower “vertical” walls.
If structure permits stone or brick can be used for dormer fronts and cheeks. A lighter weight and cheaper alternative developed by VPR is to reproduce the mock tudor half timbering and decorative fretted facia boards, both common features in upmarket Victorian town houses.
The reproduction of an architectural style that is itself a reproduction of an ancient building practice is problematic and needs to be done well. Blackened half-timber work should be hand finished and left slightly rustic. Care also needs to be taken to imperfectly finish the render work and leave it with an appropriate texture. Done well this can be highly effective. Done badly, with sharp edges and smooth render, it can look tacky.
Reproducing Victorian facia boards where original designs are available or creating new designs is one of the most fun areas of restoration work. The design seen left was developed by Vintage Property Restoration in 2014 the year that Leeds hosted the tour de France. Close inspection reveals that the apparent repetitive “Victorian” fretwork is in fact the Tour de France motive toiling over rolling Yorkshire hills with Yorkshire roses thrown in for good measure. The flat roof dormer shown here have the square of the flat roof softened with the use of traditional wooden guttering supported on timber corbels.
Rather than try and blend in with existing materials and reproduce vintage designs, a third approach is to produce something unashamedly modern that stands in contrast with the rest of the house. I often cite the green glass pyramid in the forecourt of the Louvre when presenting this strategy. The architectural style of our age has its own merit and authenticity and it can and should be showcased alongside architecture from other periods.
We built this last dormer a few years ago in Ls6. I really like the way the austere cube shape, stylish larch cladding, and high spec windows contrast with the very traditional 1930s semi below. It was built to a high environmental spec, extremely well insulated and with triple glazed windows supplied by the Green Building Store.
To conclude, dormers don’t have to look ugly. They can be designed to fit in, or to unashamedly contrast, with traditional period architecture. The secret is to be daring and think out of the box.