In Kerala, gabled roofs have always been the symbol of a family's stature in society. Even concrete houses with sloping roofs today proudly sport gables.
The classic gable - or the triangular façade formed by extending the top end of a sloping roof - dates back to ancient Greece and is found in almost every style of architecture, from the colonial to the contemporary.
In ancient Kerala, the gabled roof was the symbol of a family's stature in society, a statement of style. Traditional families vied with one another to adorn their houses with highly ornate wooden gables carved by expert craftsmen. Each region in the erstwhile state of Travancore had its own style of gable.
Diversity in design
In South Travancore belt, the gable was designed as an extension from the top end of a sloping roof. The beak was provided with a carved triangular façade as in the Padmanabhapuram Palace and the numerous Amma Veedus dotting the heritage areas in the city. In the mid-Travancore region, the gable was curved in the shape of a boat. Further to the North, in what is now Ernakulam and Thrissur, it was a projection from the roof, angling upwards. The protruding end of the gable provides protection from rain.
Apart from the aesthetics, the gable on a roof performs a vital function. "If the roof is the face of the house, the gable is the nose. It helps the house breathe by expelling hot air rising from the bottom level and thereby keeps the interiors cool in summer," explains B. Arjunan, director of Arjun and Associates, a Thiruvananthapuram-based firm specialising in Vasthu architecture.
In the traditional style, the construction of a gable was based on precise measurements. Proportionality is the key. For houses, the sides of the triangle have to be at an angle of 33 degrees with the base. This is to ensure that the gable does not disturb the overall dimensions and aesthetics of the roof and the building in general. An imperfect gable can spoil the appearance of a house, just as a deformed nose mars the beauty of a face.
Even concrete houses with sloping roofs today proudly sport gables. To ensure that the utility value is maintained, air holes are provided within the triangular face. Designing gables for a multi-level roof is both a challenge and an opportunity for an architect. Multi-tier gables and those facing different directions add to the elegance of a house. Again, proportionality is the key to the beauty of this design layout.
A gable can add about Rs.2000 to the construction cost of a roof. For multi- level gables, the cost can be as high as Rs.25,000. But for an increasingly culture-conscious society, the additional cost involved in adding a gable is more than made up for by the proud statement of tradition.
That is perhaps why the gable has emerged as the most distinguishing feature of Kerala architecture. Most new tourist resorts, houses and commercial buildings are built to flaunt this design aspect.
Builders have bypassed the problem of providing a gabled roof for a house with a flat terrace. This is made possible by fabricating a metal framework over the terrace to hold tiles or light roofing substitutes like tile-profile sheets. Apart from the enhanced aesthetics offered by the gabled roof, the flat terrace offers another tier of useable space. The steel truss used for fabrication is a better and more cost-effective option than wooden rafters