Oscar’s Observations: Eavesdropping

Posted on: April 14th, 2020 No Comments

By Christine Bush

Oscar here, ready to bring you a new take on looking more closely at Adirondack architecture, historic buildings, and preservation opportunities.

Last week, I mentioned that I reside on the eave* of an 1850s Adirondack farmhouse. This week I would like to talk a little bit about eaves. What is an eave, and what can it tell me? Is it an eave, a cornice, entablature, or frieze? The terminology around eaves can be confusing, so let’s start with a definition of an eave, and briefly break down some of the other terms you might hear.

While there are several sources out there, I like to refer to my friend Cyril Harris, and his book, American Architecture An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Simply stated, the eave is the part of the roof that projects beyond the exterior wall: usually the lower edge of a sloped roof.

An eave can be bellcast, bracketed, flared, open, closed, coved or boxed. The eave can have a gable return or exposed rafters. There are often associated elements of an eave, which can be a bit confusing. Here, I include a simplified graphic to identify some of those other elements associated with eaves.

Cornice: The exterior trim of a structure at the meeting of the roof and wall; usually consists of a bed molding, soffit, fascia, and crown molding. You might often hear the term eave and cornice used interchangeably.

Back to what an eave does — while many traditional building elements today have become more ornamental than functional, the role of the eave has changed little since its origins in antiquity. In essence, its job is to keep water away from the face of the building and foundations, much like me.

Cornices and eaves are derived from the Orders of classical architecture, and even my humble abode is influenced by Greek, Doric Order. Eaves provide both a visual termination to the wall, a visual transition into the roof above, and are integral to the roofing (we will talk about roofs in a future post) system. A projecting eave can be broad and in various shapes, which cast shadow lines adding to the aesthetic appeal and can aid in shading windows in warmer climates and shedding rain and snow away from the house in colder climates.

Even in simple vernacular houses like mine, the builder sought to create an elegant transition between an eave detail and the details on the gable end. The eave detail is one of the essential elements that can help us identify what architectural style a house is.**

Why would I want to know what style it is, you ask?

Knowing the style of your house is an essential tool that will inform the planning and understanding of your preservation projects. It can help you: to date a building, understand construction techniques, understand what influenced people’s artistic thinking and tastes, understand what you are looking at, put the building in context, understand why people build the way they do, and also it’s fun!

At some point, the eave on your house will need repair or replacement. This is especially true with gable end returns and bracketed eaves. If you decide to add insulation, venting, or change roofing materials, this can influence how the eave is reconstructed. Sadly, the construction of traditional eaves and cornices is becoming a lost art.

Oscar’s note, It is all in the details! While some “creative” interpretations of classical designs may work, my advice is to look to traditional patterns, either directly from your home or referenced precedent.  The proportions of an eave detail have a significant impact on how the roof visually and physically sits on the building. It’s crucial to not only get the eave sized correctly for the building, but also to make sure the individual parts of the cornice are appropriately sized. Getting the right eave is all about following the rules – carefully and accurately. The correct details don’t necessarily require more money, but they do require more thought. I have included some instructional articles I hope you review before you tackle your eave project.

*Below are several additional resources for properly preserving your eaves:

**For more on architectural styles, see the links below:

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