What is a Cupola on a Roof?

January 19, 2024

You may not recognize the term, but you’ve probably seen this feature plenty of times on barns, sheds and houses. Characterized as a tower, or dome-like feature on the peak of a roof, a cupola is a popular choice to add character to a roofline. Some feature windows or stained glass, and often holds a weathervane. 

You may have wondered what purpose these structures serve, given that in modern architecture, they are often closed off and inaccessible. Today, the modern cupola is mostly always just aesthetic. Meaning, it is not a functioning piece of the architecture.  However, this was not always the case. 

The cupola was used in older architecture to add light or ventilation to the structure. 

The cupola was frequently used on barn roofs to add ventilation to tightly built barns. In the winter, fumes from cow manure, and breath from the cows would create an inhospitable moisture on the barn walls and ceiling, causing barn wood to rot prematurely. The cupola was used to add ventilation to the roof, which helped keep the barn wood from decomposing. Louver vents, or sometimes windows, allowed the hot moist air to escape from the barn roof. The cupola was also frequently used to add light into buildings, and sometimes even functioned as a looking point. 

On some homes, a cupola, or also called a belvedere in these cases, can add a light and air third floor to your home to maximize views. The belvedere quite literally translates to “beautiful view” and can give your home a peaceful viewing room. 

Today, most cupolas are not accessible from the inside, but many still have the characteristic windows that the original cupolas featured. A cupola is an excellent design feature for long rooflines, to help break up and add character to the roof. The cupola can add balance and style to your home. In today’s modern time with our technology, adding a cupola with remote control systems to open and close windows and louvers gives effortless functionality.

Most cupolas are made from vinyl or wood. Copper is a popular roof choice for the cupola. The standard sizing for a cupola is 1.25 inches per every foot of unbroken, continuous roof life. For roof lines that are longer than 48 feet, it is often recommended that two or more cupolas are added for aesthetic purposes. Cupola sizing is generally not smaller than a 16” x 16” area. 

 If not originally designed when the house was built, there are even packages that can be purchased and installed on rooftops to add that character that a cupola can bring.

Cupola Roof in El Dorado County, California