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Living Architecture - the roof over our head

Living Architecture - the roof over our head

A sound roof over our head is something we all need, and a traditional-looking one can be a thing of beauty – but how it’s constructed will vary, according to the style of what lies beneath it, and where you happen to live.

The Loire is often regarded as the gateway to the South, and although Provence is still a long way away, there’s no denying that the look and feel of the landscape undergoes a dramatic shift once grey slate gives way to the warmer tones of terracotta. It’s not quite so cut and dried, though, for local roof coverings still vary in response to things like climate and the availability of natural materials.


Areas of frequent winds and high rainfall, for example, require steep roofs, often with generously overlapped simple flat tiles (tuiles plates) nailed to laths (volige) or battens (liteaux) at a pitch of 45° or more to keep things safe and secure.

The pleasing visual effect of rooftops like these plays a major role in the visual charm of showcase towns and villages in
Périgord and the Tarn valley. 


A Roman legacy?

That said, the traditional choice for the shallower-pitched roofs of much of southern France is our old friend the canal tile (tuile canal or creuse), also referred to as tige de botte, tuile courant or tuile de châpeau

Thought to have been introduced by the Romans, they’re also a defining feature of landscapes around the Mediterranean and Adriatic, and for good reason. It’s a true design classic – early ones have a compound curvature which originated when soft clay rectangles were formed around the tilemaker’s thigh before drying and firing. The resulting tapered curves enabled them to be overlapped, laid with the narrower ends uppermost, to cover the gap between lines laid upturned (narrow ends downwards) on the roof structure to create drainage channels.

It’s a simple and elegant concept, and capable of accommodating irregularities in the roof structure However, the system was not without its challenges, since ‘under’ tiles tended to rock and required stabilising, either with small stones or pieces of broken tile, or by battens nailed down the roof panels with the tiles laid securely between them.



The eventual move to mechanically produced tiles (tuiles mécaniques) prompted refinements to allow the lower, upturned tiles to be laid more securely. First was a constant, rather than variable, taper which increased the area on contact with the roof timber. Next came a lug moulded onto the convex face to sit above a batten and prevent the tile from sliding downwards. The final breakthrough development was the fond plat à tenons, whose flattened U-shaped form incorporates lateral lugs which rest above the top of the tile below. 

The result is consistently spaced tiles which are virtually locked together, while pre-formed nail holes are provided at the overlapped upper end, allowing them to be nailed for extra security. The resulting hybrid ‘flat unders/rounded overs’ system is now in widespread use, both for entirely new construction and for restoration work, where the flats are barely visible beneath salvaged antique canal tiles.

Tints & tones

While economy factory-made roofing tiles have a rather bland uniformity, many manufacturers now also produce heritage
ranges whose appearance attempts to replicate the attractive tonal variations of lovingly preserved traditional buildings.

Look closely at the real thing and you’ll notice a surprising variety of shapes and dimensions in hand-made tiles, whose colour can vary from pastel pink to pale, russet yellow. While we don’t have the vibrant trademark colours of Burgundy, you’ll often come across old, hand-made tiles which look almost as good as when they were produced, thanks to a protective glazed upper surface which prevents them becoming porous and at risk from frost damage. A simple saltglaze can work wonders. 

Dimension-wise, flat tiles vary between around 14x25cm and 18x28cm, while their canal counterparts mostly fall between 15x30cm and 30x50cm, although salvaged tiles are often shorter, with curves ranging from a deep ‘v’ to a wide, shallow contour. For this reason, restoring the roof of a heritage building using antique tiles requires skill, experience and patience.


Arduous ardoise

slate_Travassac-franceOf course, a southern or maritime climate is no guarantee that you’ll have a terracotta roof. Slate makes sporadic appearances, although in limestone and clay territory it’s not easy to come by. Slate has therefore enjoyed a premium image, being preserved for structures like important civic buildings, chateaux, churches and privately owned villas intended to make a bold statement.

Where it does occur, extracting slate isn’t always straightforward, as you’ll see north of Brive-la-Gaillard at the Pans de Travassac. Limoges cathedral  and countless other historic buildings are roofed with slate from these historic quarries, whose worked-out sections are now open to visitors. Demonstrations of the slate-cutters’ skills are
impressive enough, but what will really take your breath away is the sensational adjoining post-industrial landscape where vast pillars of stone rise between yawning chasms left by prolonged extraction of the vertical slate deposits.

Archive photograph displays of the workers’ arduous labours reveal exactly why slate has been so highly prized, particularly in western areas. Elsewhere in France you’ll find thatch (paille), timber shingles (tavaillons) and even stone () roofs, but as we’ve seen, we have a rich heritage of our own, and it’s worth looking after. 


Find out more   - an invaluable resource for anyone restoring a traditional building in or around the region.  - another essential resource.  -architectural heritage revealed in the most sensational setting.


WORDS & PHOTOS: Roger Moss

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in Living Magazine February 2014