Gable ends don't always get the respect they deserve.
Designers have a tendency to focus their attention on the eaves
walls, which typically face the road in the front and the
backyard living area in the rear. As a result, it's not
uncommon to see gable ends that consist of blank expanses of
wall relieved only by the odd window or two.
In a development of houses on tight lots, where the gable ends
face one another rather than the viewer, that may be scarcely
noticeable. In a more open setting or on a corner lot, though,
it can be a real eyesore.
A Sense of Scale
For many design-challenged gable ends, the basic issue has to
do with scale. As you approach a building, you instinctively
gauge its size by focusing on things like doorways, porches,
steps, and railings. The dimensions of those "human-scaled"
elements fall into a narrow range determined by the size of the
human body, making them obvious visual yardsticks. Without
them, the elevation has a blank, unwelcoming appearance, and
it's more difficult to tell how large or far away a structure
is. That can make the viewer feel unconsciously ill at
Windows alone don't work very well as scaling devices because,
unlike doors, they can be practically any height or width.
Adding muntins sometimes helps, but on an elevation with only a
couple of windows, it's unlikely to solve the problem entirely.
And the opposite extreme — a gable end that's solidly
covered with windows — can be just as bad, because
there's no way for the viewer to make a visual connection
between the windows and the floors and rooms inside.
Materials and Decoration
One simple way to add life to a gable end is to change siding
materials. The illustration on the bottom of Figure 1 probably
won't win any design awards, but it's a clear improvement on
the version on top.
Figure 1.The gable-end elevation on top, with its
two undersized windows, provides no sense of scale; from a
distance it's difficult to tell whether the structure is a
house or a larger commercial building. Changing siding at the
level of the second floor is a low-cost design improvement,
providing the viewer with a clue to the structure's height
Even a relatively subtle change in the siding can have a
pronounced effect on a gable end. Shingle-style buildings, for
example, often provide visual relief to big open expanses with
a flared belt course partway up a wall. A run of crown or bed
molding can be added below the flared course to strengthen the
Another approach is to add ornamental trim elements like
bargeboards, brackets, or decorative trusswork (Figure 2). This
was a common feature of houses in the gothic revival (sometimes
known as "carpenter gothic") and stick styles. In Greek revival
designs, a horizontal band of trim at the level of the eaves
accomplishes the same thing.
Figure 2.Dressing up a gable end with brackets or
other applied ornamentation is another way to add a sense of
scale. The contrast between the large windows at the roof peak
(each of which is nearly the size of the entry door below) and
the much smaller ones to either side is another scaling
Lower the Roof
From a standpoint of cost and convenience, a full two-story
house has some substantial advantages over a similar
story-and-a-half design. The full-height upstairs walls are
easier to insulate and finish than the combination of vertical
kneewalls and sloping eaves walls found in the story and a
half. Two-story designs offer full standing headroom
throughout, which adds flexibility to the upstairs floor plan.
If the roof is stick-framed, there's also potential for a roomy
attic storage area.
On the other hand, full two-story designs are more challenging
to design on the outside. Especially at the gable end of a
house with a simple rectangular floor plan, the added height of
a full second story can make an elevation seem awkward and boxy
(Figure 3). This doesn't mean that the story-and-a-half
approach is "better" (although it may account for some of the
design's long-standing popularity). But it does suggest that as
the height of a gable end increases, more care is needed to
maintain a satisfying sense of scale.
Figure 3.A two-story plan is a fine way to enclose
a maximum amount of space at minimal cost, but without skillful
detailing, the gable end often presents an awkward, top-heavy
look (top). Lowering the roofline is a simple way to provide a
better-proportioned facade, although it complicates the framing
and interior finish. Shed dormers can be added if additional
space is needed upstairs (bottom).
Add Wrap-Around Elements or Change
One of the best ways to add scale to a tall gable end is to
incorporate wrap-around elements like porches or floor-plan
bumpouts to the basic structure (Figure 4). This accomplishes
two things: It visually broadens the base of the structure, and
it provides a way to introduce human-scaled elements.
Figure 4.The stripped-down gable elevation on top
is improved by the addition of a wraparound porch and
low-pitched dormers (bottom). The broader base also helps tie
the house to the ground and provides a sheltering
Gable ends don't always have to be symmetrical; where
appropriate, they can be stretched or carved into less standard
forms. For example, introducing a saltbox profile, with or
without additional massing, can add interest to an otherwise
bland elevation (Figure 5).
Figure 5.The gable-end elevation on top is
balanced and reasonably well proportioned but lacks punch.
Stretching the roof into a saltbox shape and adding a
subsidiary roof over the entry and floor-plan bumpout make for
a more interesting appearance (bottom).Mark Bromleyis an architect in Cabot, Vt.