Houseways: Roofs (how one aspect of house design affects other aspects)

[this essay is part of a series about the practicalities and pragmatics of one-, two- or three-story houses built within the last few decades on one or two plots of land in the Dhofar region of Oman; extremely expensive houses often take up three or more plots and have very different architectural styles] – photo by Onaiza Shaikh

In Dhofari-designed houses the roof is accessed by an internal staircase; this necessity creates certain ‘rules’ about house architecture and space use. First, because the floor, roof and steps are from poured cement and there needs to be space for the support poles, there are always landings and an empty space next to the main staircase (see below 1). Even the back set of stairs (in large houses) are wide with an open area at the bottom. As stairs aren’t built narrowly between two walls, it is easy to get large pieces of furniture to the upper stories. Further, because there is always open space on at least one side of the main staircase, there are always banisters [handrails supported by balusters].

Second, there is always empty space under the stairs which can be used for storage or decorated with a piece of furniture. Third, there is always a landing at the top of the stairs which is usually used as a storage space. This landing space can look like, from outside, a small, four-sided “hat” or cupola. Normally the cupola has windows on several or all sides which, depending on the house design, brings light into the hallway below. The roof of this small space is accessed by a ladder and often holds satellite dishes and the round, white plastic water tank. Water comes from the municipal supply or a well and comes into the house using gravity, although some houses have a small pump to increase force water up into the tank.

In some larger houses, there is both a square room at the top of the stairs and a decorative cupola which is round and is entirety made of glass.

Another aspect of house patterns is that while almost all modern houses have flat roofs, looking at roof accessibility can tell you if the house is Dhofari-designed [meaning either the architect is Dhofari or a Dhofari is planing to live in the house.] While Dhofaris don’t necessarily use the roof space, it is always very easy to enter. If one can only get on the roof by a ladder, the house is not Dhofari-designed.

When cement block houses started to be built, roof-lines often looked like battlements with the edge wall as a parapet with crenellations, sometimes fashioned to look like the distinctive local style of incense burners, majmar (see below 2). Now there are many choices including closely spaced decorated balusters, glass inserts, metal railing, etc. (see below 3).

By law, all roofs have some sort of wall around the edge for safety. The most common type is plastered cement blocks up to waist height.  Sometimes there is no discernible difference between wall of the highest floor and the roofwall, e.g. there is a smooth facade until the top of the roof wall, which often has a cornice with a dentil pattern. Sometimes there is a clear division in that the roofwall protrudes slightly and is painted/ decorated. Some newer houses have a flat roof that is smaller than the footprint, a wall at the edge, then a slope of three to five courses of clay tile which meet the wall of the upper story.

Most roofs have a series of lights, often looking like small lanterns, placed at intervals along the roof wall (see below 3).

Roofs are not seen as part of the living space although there might be a metal or poured cement roofed area for women and children to sit outside, instead of sitting on the front steps. If there is not enough room in the hosh (courtyard), there might be a clothesline (as clothes dryers are rare) and miscellaneous objects which wouldn’t be damaged by being outside, such as leftover tiles. Sometimes there is a laundry room, an extra room for the maid and/ or small room for storage, either free-standing or sharing a wall with the small room at the top of the stairs.

A roof can be finished, meaning that the homeowner does not mean to build another story, or unfinished, meaning although the roof might be tiled and/ or have decorations such as crenelations the owner might build an additional story. This type will have distinctive short, poured cement pillars which cover reinforcing bars, aka rebar. When an upper story is added, the tiles, decorations and tops of the short pillars are broken. [I will discuss the cement/ rebar pillars in a later essay about house building.]

Two personal notes about roofs:

– Hurricane Mekunu (2018) and roofs: Given the infrequent, but heavy, water accumulation after rainstorms, there are often holes drilled at the bottom of the edge wall to allow the water to drain. One neighbor did not have this and after Mekunu hit, his roof looked like a swimming pool for over a week. The day after the storm, I told my landlord who called the neighbor, but he did not come and fix the problem, perhaps because he would have needed to climb up a ladder carrying a pump. Opening the roof door would have meant all that water coursing into the house. As the water very slowly evaporated, I could see the damp seeping into the cement blocks, eventually reaching halfway down the side of the house.

My roof had holes for the water escape and the roof door had a ledge in front of it but the huge amount of water from Mekunu meant that rain came into the landing at the top of the stairs. However, the stairs were slightly canted so that the rain ran down the left side of the stairs and at the first landing spilled over the edge into the stairwell instead of continuing down the stairs. For several hours there was a waterfall in the stairwell but no roof water entered my apartment or the apartment downstairs as the water seeped out in the gap under the front door.

I wonder how the neighbor’s roof door was so watertight. The water was at least two feet deep and took many days to evaporate. I don’t know that neighbor well enough to ask if I can prowl around his house but it is an interesting question.

– When I lived in my previous house, I paid a gardener to keep the roof clean and water various plants in pots. When I looked at the area where I lived on satellite maps, I realized the mine was the only house with a clean roof. (Which begs the question of the tradeoff between having a lower electricity bill because a clean, white-tiled roof reflects heat and wasting water to keep the roof clean.)

Examples of staircases: photos from social media (newly-built house for sale) and an informant

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Examples of typical Dhofari-designed rooflines: photos by Onaiza Shaikh

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Examples of recently-built roofs: photos from social media (newly-built house for sale and rental house)

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