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The Critical Design Detail in Midcentury Modern Architecture | Revealing the Secret

You NEED to know this for the Architect Registration Exam, ARE 5.0!

Whether you’re a student, architect, or even a client, NOBODY, I repeat, NOBODY wants mold and water damage in their houses.

Is it possible to create a cool roof design without compromising its structure?

Today, I’ll be diving into what works, what doesn't, and how you can design cool and beautiful roof details without having to worry about these issues.

We all know how critical it is to focus on the roof design. Whether you’re going for a unique look or designing a more traditional-looking roof, making a healthy roof system is one of the most important things to take into consideration when designing a structure.

I want to take you through a design that I’m really proud of- The Wing House. This mid-century modern house has a butterfly roof system with a continuous ceiling and clerestory windows that go all the way up. With a seamless design, no header, and no attic, the thing that I had to figure out was, “How do I properly detail this while getting the most minimal roof system and preventing future damage?” The details of this house challenged me, which in the end made it a really exciting project!

I want to get into some critical design elements that are required for a detail like this to ensure it’s a healthy system. If you’re studying for the AREs, these design elements are hot topics, too!

These details are especially helpful for PPD, PDD, and construction evaluation because we’ll be tackling things like ventilation, insulation, condensation, water, and all that other good stuff.

Vented vs Unvented Roofs

So, is it true that if roof insulation is installed between rafters with no air spaces between the insulation and roof sheathing that ventilation isn’t required? Let’s focus on the key phrase, “there is no air space between the insulation and the sheathing.” Let’s talk about vaulted ceilings because these are usually the situations where you’ll encounter these types of issues.

Source: First in Architecture

One of the main issues I want to talk about in this type of design is insulation. And one of the challenges you’ll face is creating a big enough gap to fit your insulation. Different kinds of insulations call for different thicknesses. The challenge is that there is less room for air to circulate through a vaulted ceiling than there is in an attic. It’s important to think about because you need airflow to prevent condensation and mold build-up, which can cause problems with the structural safety of the roof system and the indoor air quality, too.

Now, how do we prevent these problems?

Get proper airflow through there to dissipate the condensation, so it doesn’t just stay in that area. With the Wing House, I didn’t get the opportunity to do so because there wasn’t enough space. Batt insulation wasn’t an option either because the air gaps within the insulation require airflow, and there wasn’t any. We had to create an enclosure that would allow for proper thermal quality by using closed-cell insulation.

Source: First in Architecture

Ironically, when you don’t have an air gap, you want to ensure it’s tightly sealed. There isn’t any air coming in. You can expect some penetrations here and there, but without an air gap, air or water won’t have anywhere to go if it does enter. That’s where the importance of rigid insulation comes in. If air does get in, it won’t penetrate the insulation and build up mold.

Going back to the Wing House, the roof design challenged me to be more creative with a lot of the details. I remember wanting to use recessed can lights at first. I then scratched that idea because I realized it was just going to create a hole in the airtight system, cause thermal bridging, and reduce the insulation in that area. This forced me to be more adventurous with my lighting choice, and I ended up choosing hidden lights and using more ambient lights —which was pretty cool!

Building this house taught me that even if midcentury houses don’t have the same insulation, thermal, and energy requirements that most houses have now, you can hide these systems in modern architecture without compromising aesthetics. It's all about getting creative and disguising it.

I love that house. Looking back, are there things I would’ve done differently? Yes. But that’s the thing about designing modern buildings; you get to play around with new details.

That’s one of the things that makes being an architect so much fun because you’re given countless opportunities to think outside the box, learn from your mistakes, and continually become a better architect.

My advice for those of you who are taking your exams is

to remember it from that point of view. Remember these exams are designed as a way to understand better why the details matter. In the future, you can challenge how you design, get creative and do it differently while maintaining a healthy building.

I hope that when you're studying for your exam or thinking about midcentury houses, vaulted ceilings, condensation, and all those other details, you'll remember this post and get ideas from it.

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