Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 6, 2012

Up on the Roof

I’ve been on my share of roofs. I always liked working on roofs. Have you stood on the roof of your house? You should try it. I recommend it as a way to get a different perspective on the place where you live. I particularly like to go up on the roof of my house on New Year’s Eve and the 4th of July to get the panoramic view of the entire Los Angeles basin as the fireworks bloom across the entire expanse of the metropolis. For those of you in less temperate climates, that might be a bit of struggle, particularly on New Year’s, and I don’t recommend climbing up on roofs covered in ice or snow, but consider it.

I bring up this subject because recently my friend, M, called to ask me about a bid he’d gotten for re-roofing his house. He didn’t think the square footage of the roof the contractor quoted could possibly be correct. How could a 2,400 sq. ft. house have 4,400 square feet of roof?

There’s only one way to find out, I suggested. Let’s climb up and measure it.

Now, unless a building has an utterly flat roof and no overhanging eaves, the surface of the roof is always larger than the building. Most houses have pitched roofs that rise up from the eaves at a rate of at least 3 vertical feet or more in every 12 linear feet; that’s termed a “3/12 pitch.” There’s also some overhang beyond the walls of the building. Therefore, simple geometry tells you that the surface of the roof will be at least 25% greater than the surface of the building. In the U.S., the garage isn’t included in the official square footage of the house, so if you have an attached garage, as M does, that’s additional roof area. M’s roof was about that standard 3/12, which is good, because, of course, steeper roofs start getting harder to stick to, and no one wants to go scooting off the edge onto the patio or the oleanders.

I drove over to M’s place, we climbed onto the roof of his single-story house with a 100 foot tape measure, a 25 foot tape measure, a pencil and a pad, and started measuring.

Regular readers will be expecting the digression that’s a common feature of Under Western Skies, and here it comes.

When I was in high school, I had an extremely difficult time with algebra and with geometry proofs. For the LIFE of me, I couldn’t grasp what was meant by the UNKNOWN: X. But, as one summer succeeded another, and the years went by, I spent more and more time working with my father and grandfather in the family construction business. And, it turns out, building houses is, essentially, a geometry problem. There are measurements and angles to compute, and even building a simple wall means dividing its length into 16-inch increments in order to put the studs in the correct places.

Building a roof is even more interesting, because, while one can imagine building walls as a two-dimensional problem in planar geometry, a roof  is a three-dimensional construct, which entails cutting rafters and stringers with the correct angles at each end to make everything fit together correctly. Here’s one recommendation: if every kid who’s ever struggled with geometry could have the experience of building a house, they’d find basic geometry a lot simpler after computing the angles and areas that are involved.

M’s roof wasn’t simple (or I wouldn’t be writing about it). It didn’t square off at each end in simple gables. It had HIP roofs, which are long sloping angles that proceed back from the corners of the building up to a point of convergence along one or more ridgelines (M’s has more). In addition, his house isn’t a simple rectangle, but has two wings extending from the central area, making a “U” that surrounds an inner courtyard. We had to compute a lot of parallelograms due to all the hips in the roof,

Ultimately, we determined that the contractor was probably right. In fact, if I’d been estimating the job, I’d’ve come up a little bit short, given all the ridges there were to cover.

The cool thing about M’s house is the view. It perches on the north edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, looking northward toward the San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountains beyond the flat plain of L.A. It’s an unobstructed view that’s pretty much the northward-looking counterpart of the view you saw behind Johnny Carson all those nights (looking south from the edge of the mountains). It’s spectacular.

Of all the roofs I’ve been on, this was probably the best view ever.

roof view northward to Los Angeles

My brother will tell you a legendary tale of working on a roof in during bitter winter when you tried to get the run of shingles that would end up near the chimney so you could warm your hands when you worked your way to the top (you always shingle from lower to higher: that way each successive row overlaps the one below it, and rain runs off instead of in).

I liked the view you got from any roof, which, in Ohio, was always one of the best views you could get, since we lacked towering peaks and looming cliffs and such.

One of the oldest and most historic buildings we ever roofed was the notable Cross Keys (or Crossed Keys) Tavern. Built down by the Little Miami River, it was constructed of local stone in 1802. There was a big crack in the stone at one end of the building that local legend says was caused by the immense New Madrid earthquake of 1812. Maybe so. Its roof is made of a material common in its original era, but not too common now: wooden shakes.

The existing roof was old, indeed, and long overdue for replacement. The original wooden eaves and fascia were cypress, an extremely weather- and rot-resistant wood that was widely used in an earlier day, but isn’t now because … well … most of America’s cedar stock was cut down and sawn up for buildings and is no longer available in ready quantities. To see a couple of photos of the tavern, check the Wikipedia entry, or CLICK HERE for some nicely atmospheric black-and-white photos on Flickr. As you can see, it’s not a large building in terms of square footage, but it’s tall. We stood on scaffolding about ten feet up in order to tear off the old fascia and get onto the roof. We were up there, prying old, weathered boards off the fascia. I hooked a piece of it with my hammer and yanked it off. There was a big SNAKE, a foot in front of me. I jumped right off that scaffold. No hesitation. The snake, of course, was at least as startled as I was, and vamoosed, too, but, being smarter than I was, in a less life-threatening manner. Nature had another challenge for us once we started tearing off the roofing, since bumblebees were swarming around a big nest under the roof. I hate big bees. I judged that occasion to be worth a trip into town for an industrial-strength bug-killer before we tried to evict those dudes. All kinds of things inhabit a building that stands mostly unused out in the woods for a couple hundred years. There wasn’t much of a view from the roof of the Cross Keys, since it was surrounded by trees, but it was memorable, just the same.

Back on M’s roof, I noticed that with the passing years and fewer opportunities to practice going up and down ladders, I’m less casual about that step from the ladder onto the roof, even without a bundle of shingles slung over my shoulder like in the old days. A younger Brad would scoff about this old guy gingerly lifting himself off the ladder and cautiously planting one foot on the roof before transferring his weight.

It’s a good thing there were no snakes, because I hate to think how well I’d manage that leap off the roof onto the ground now.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017



  1. If I knew this at CSC, we could have sent you
    on the roof to fix the A/C that would always
    go out.😓


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