The cupola

Cupolas. . . cupolas. . . cupolas.  That medieval innovation that served to admit natural light, provide ventilation and gives and extra dimension & articulation to the interior of many dome structures throughout the world.  In this blog post we will look at the use and misuse of the cupola in today’s architectural landscape that has grown more and more prevalent throughout New England.

 So, how did we get from the cupola being a beautiful urban masterpiece - defining the skyline of a city like Florence.  From this;

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 To this? 

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 In residential architecture, it seems that the cupola became popular in New England during the 1800’s Victorian houses(including Queen Anne, Shingle Style and Stick Style houses).  Frequently the cupola took the form of a tower or turret on one side of the building – architect’s in these styles, in their quest for a picturesque forms, were not partial to symmetry.  In rural architecture, the cupola was a great way to ventilate dairy barns – they drew in hot, smelly air and ventilated it up and out of the barn.  This also served to keep the inside of the barn cool and dry which was especially important where hay was stored since moisture can render hay combustible.

 In today’s house, we feel that the cupola is typically designed poorly, with poor proportions and details, and is overused as a purely ornamental design feature.  This is not to say that all cupolas designed/used today are poor, just the vast majority of them.  Here are a couple of bullet points to illustrate what we think makes up a proper cupola;

  • Does the cupola actually have a function?  Or does it just sit on top of the roof?  As you can see from the interior of this cupola on a house in Vermont, it functions to admit light into the space and filter down into the space through the beautiful heavy-timber post & beam details.
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  • Is there a reason to have the cupola to begin with?  In this project of ours that included a cupola, we used it to help articulate the centerline that organized the architecture and the landscape.  This centerline thru the cupola, the center of the barn doors, across the centerline of the swimming pools, cutting thru the center of a symmetrically organized garden space and terminating on a sculpture in a reflecting pond helps to tie the architecture to the surrounding landscape.   
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  • How is the cupola composed with the other architectural elements?  Again, from the same project, instead of just plopping a cupola onto a roof, we detailed the cupola to integrate into the roof form, by sweeping up the lead-coated copper roof surface to form the base of the cupola.  This ties the cupola to structure both visually and structurally. 
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  • How is the cupola detailed and are the proper proportions used?  In designing a cupola, one has to remember that it is up at the highest point of the ridge and will be typically viewed from the ground.  It is a smaller element than the roof, so typically the moulding proportions need to be adjusted accordingly, but the overall form of the cupola needs to be slightly elongated so that it does not look too squat.  
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  • Finally, one pet peeve of ours.  As above, when the cupola is in place, it is looked at from the ground.  Therefore, architects, please stop designing cupola’s with too shallow a roof pitch.  Listen, we get it . . .on the drawing it looks better to match the roof pitch of the roof that it is sitting on.  But, in reality, this typically results in a wafer like roof on the top of the cupola simply because of the viewing angle.  In the example from our project above (the poolhouse), we used a 14/12 roof pitch (meaning 14” vertically for every 12” horizontally), while the roof it is sitting on is only a 10/12.  We have taken the liberty, via photoshop of showing what this would look like if we matched the same 10/12 roof pitch. 
Photoshoped cupola

As our examples may show, we have only really done one project where we felt a cupola would add to the project.  But we are always looking for our second; so if you know someone that may benefit from a beautifully designed cupola (or anything else for that matter), have them give us a call.