Easily identified by their dramatic V-shaped silhouette, butterfly roofs provide a visually striking alternative to traditional roof design. Two downward sloping surfaces meet to form a middle roofline, creating a shape that resembles a butterfly in flight. Typically found atop homes in the southwestern United States, the butterfly roof is an iconic feature of mid-century architecture.
According to a piece published by Curbed this winter, the butterfly roof design was originally conceived by famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in 1930. He first proposed the concept for a vacation home in Chile, designed for wealthy Chilean art collector Eugenia Errazuriz. Unfortunately, the Chilean heiress bought a few too many Picasso paintings and went bankrupt a year before construction was supposed to begin.
Summer House at Karuizawa by Antonin Raymond
The butterfly roof design was later appropriated by Czech architect Antonin Raymond in a house in Japan in the 1930s. A decade later, German Bauhaus leader Marcel Breuer borrowed the idea for his Geller House on Long Island. In the 1950s, southern California architect William Krisel popularized the design, bringing the butterfly roof to the masses in the California desert and surrounding region. The sharp, pointed style mirrors the peaks and valleys of the surrounding desert mountain ranges. Thanks to the success of Krisel’s homes, the butterfly roof was no longer a special feature of high-society vacation getaways. It instead became a typical characteristic of postwar American residences.
Racquet Club Road Estates by William Krisel
What accounts for the butterfly roof’s popularity today? Apart from its aesthetic appeal, butterfly roofs come with significant environmental benefits. The slanted surfaces are well suited for strategically placed solar panels. The tall outer angles allow for larger windows, as well as clerestory windows in the high ceilings, letting in plenty of natural light. Butterfly roofs also collect rainwater in the central roof valley, perfect for drought-prone areas like southern California and the surrounding desert. The roof design eliminates the need for gutters and the like, just make sure your roof material is waterproof!
In recent years, the wedge-shaped style has spread from the desert homes of Palm Springs to the Rocky Mountain residences in Colorado and urban townhouses in rainy London, all the way to the hills of South Korea. See how this distinctive butterfly silhouette has been repeated and reimagined in climates and cultures around the world:
Designed as a beach getaway, this Australian home's steel butterfly roof lets in plenty of sunlight through its clerestory windows. The exterior copper cladding oxidizes over time, creating a beautiful, aged look. The metal exterior contrasts with the soft interior walls made of artist canvases.
Designed by the prolific Richard Meier, this butterfly roof reinforces the house's orientation toward the water. The middle roofline divides the house into public and private areas. This plan lets in more sunshine on the public-facing side, and allows for more enclosure on the private side. The roof is finished with a stone-paneled rain screen to drain and harvest rainwater.
Surrounded by the scenic Rocky Mountains, this butterfly roof design adds aesthetic interest to the structure. Though the house is not located in a year-round warm climate, the house represents a regional adaption to a modern aesthetic, bringing a West Coast look to the mountains.
The architects behind this Vancouver home combined local design sensibility with the mid-century butterfly roof. The aluminum inverted roofline and window trim feel clean and sharp, contrasting nicely with the stained red-cedar façade.
Surrounded by the green hills outside of Seoul, this home offers an expanded interpretation of the inverted roof. The architects have combined a postmodern American design concept with the local principles of Feng Shui. The two "butterfly wings" of the home include terraces that protect the house from cold winds in the wintertime. The middle roofline divides the home in two; one side is inhabited by the elder generation, the other by the younger.
A Non-Conformist Butterfly Roof Returns to North London by forrester architects, London, United Kingdom
Built to expand on a Victorian mid-terrace house, this home extension does not conform to the conventions of traditional London homes. The jagged and decidedly modern butterfly roof is meant to stand out next to its neighbors, and offers more opportunities for natural light to pour in through floor-to-ceiling windows and a slanted skylight.
Located in a quiet Maryland suburb, this seasonal home includes a deck for cookouts. The butterfly roof redirects rainwater into an adjacent lush garden and lets in plenty of light while preserving the occupants' privacy.