A flat roof in America

One of the common features of houses in India that we all grew up in is a flat roof. Of course, there are huts with roofs made of straw or clay tiles as well as various structures with slanted tiled or metallic roofs but those are indicatives of subpar living conditions.

A flat roof in America


One of the common features of houses in India that we all grew up in is a flat roof. Of course, there are huts with roofs made of straw or clay tiles as well as various structures with slanted tiled or metallic roofs but those are indicatives of subpar living conditions. If one wants to build a permanent and prominent home which will last for decades, one would construct a two or three-storied brick home with a flat roof. Such roofs serve several purposes.

They provide a space for the members of the household to gather just for idle gossiping or walking around, especially for women in the house who do not get much opportunity to go outside. A rooftop is a convenient look-out point for enjoying the surrounding vista, whether just some other buildings or trees or a river. One could hang a clothesline across the roof and dry clothes – the original idea of directly using solar energy.

The roof is a very convenient place to throw a large feast on occasions of wedding, annaprasan, shraddha etc. A small room at the entrance to the roof – the chile kotha or attic room – provides the perfect living quarters for a teenage boy in the family who can use the roof for various private activities such as exercising or playing an outdoor game or flying a kite. A flat roof, if appropriately planned and constructed, could also act as the floor of subsequent additions.


After coming to the USA, I noted that none of the houses in this country had flat roofs. I was told that in the Midwest and north-eastern states which encountered massive snow falls during winter, a flat roof could buckle if not crash under the weight of the snow. It was logical to have slanted roof lines so that snow could simply slide down instead of accumulating in thick layers. I assume that houses can be built with flat roofs in warmer areas, but I have not seen too many residential quarters with this feature even in states like Texas, Arizona and Florida. I must admit that from an architectural appeal point of view, a roof line with an intricate geometrical structure is much more aesthetically pleasing than a flat roof.

Also, chimneys of fireplaces, which are common features of most homes, blend nicely with a sloped roof. I wonder if the desire for standardisation of building materials by the suppliers also contributes to similar appearances of roof lines across the entire country.

However, most commercial buildings (and high-rise apartments) have flat roofs, but the roofs do not serve any useful purpose except for providing space for massive air-conditioning units, transformers and other electrical gadgets. It makes sense for businesses because flat roofs are presumably less expensive to build and flatness provides a platform for various heavy items. Fear of roofs collapsing under heavy snow is probably less because of the inherent sturdiness of a commercial building.

More recently, such roofs are being used as perfect spaces to install solar panels. When I built my own custom home and worked with an architect to design it, one of my requirements was that I had to have a flat roof. Since my lot was located on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a roof was perfect for viewing the ocean without any obstruction! It turned out that the city regulations allowed only 40 per cent of the total roof area to be flat but the rest had to be tiled. Such roofs are not too uncommon in this part of the country and are called “roof-top decks”.

While working with my architect, I realized that a basic problem in designing an accessible flat roof was placement of the stairway to the roof. It takes up a rather large amount of space regardless of where you place it which in turn takes away available spaces from possible other rooms and hallways. In addition, they are not aesthetically pleasing to look at.

A compact spiral, metallic stairway might fit well into any décor, but it is somewhat awkward to use. After many discussions, my architect came up with a brilliant solution. He designed it in such a way that most of the stairway lay outside the exterior wall of the building and out of sight. Once built, this roof-top deck became a premium feature of my house and my joy literally went through the roof. Apart from enjoying the surroundings, my spiritual persona felt a few steps closer to God. At the other extreme, my persona as an artist thought that the roof was perfect for my models to sunbathe in skimpy bikinis; alas that never happened.

I wanted to install a roof-top jacuzzi tub where the models could frolic. My contractor advised against the idea from an engineering point of view. On the practical front, the rooftop location is great for installing a TV satellite dish to get excellent reception. It offers various choices for orientations of solar panels. It provides a great location for afternoon tea. I can also see fourth-of-July fireworks simply by walking up to the roof.

I ran into an unexpected problem of water leaks. Although Southern California is known for severe drought, it does rain here during the winter months. I discovered that two areas of my roof leaked during heavy rain which occurred a couple of times each season. It was a manageable crisis in the sense that I could put a bucket and collect all the water without causing any damage or inconvenience. I contacted the builder since there was a warranty. His rep came and immediately pointed out the problem and how to solve it.

“See, you chose Mexican Saltillo tiles which are not the best material for the roof, especially the grout between the tiles. These behave more like sponges, absorb water and get saturated”. It was indeed my decision to select this type of tile because it gave a Mexican flavour to the décor. “What you should do is coat the entire roof before every rainy season with a water-proof sealer. You can apply it with a mop”.

He gave me the name of the sealant and the store where I could buy it. A permanent way to fix the problem is to rip up the entire roof-top deck, remove all the existing tiles and then cover it with a totally different roofing material.

Apart from the cost, it would involve several days of noise and dust as the workers hammer out the existing tiles. I will eventually have to do this but have survived satisfactorily with periodic sealing so far.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in industry and academia, is a Bengali settled in America.)