Why Do People Love Butterfly Roofs?

Palm Springs Butterfly
Palm Springs remains the best hunting grounds for spotting butterfly roofs, but such daring rooflines are increasingly popping up elsewhere. This is an Alexander home. Photos by Dave Weinstein

Does any roofline demand attention as insistently as a winged form reaching for the sky? There’s joy there and whimsy, and even functionality. In 'Return of the Butterflies,' as we revisit one of our most popular stories of the past in the new summer ‘20 issue of CA-Modern magazine, we explore the history of the butterfly roof, its re-emergence in recent years – and ponder why Joe Eichler built so few of them.

Back in the 1920s two of the founders of modern architecture independently designed butterfly roofed homes, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Neither was built. It seems that the first modern butterfly roofed dwelling to get built arrived in 1943, in Brazil, to a design by Oscar Niemeyer.

The butterflies truly arrived as a flock in Palm Springs in the 1950s and 1960s, where architect Bill Krisel designed 400 to 500 of them for tract home builder the Alexanders.

The homes seem particularly appropriate for Palm Springs, with its aura of casual and carefree living.

Still, much as people love the shape, there are some who do not, the late Krisel has said.

Berkeley butterfly
Architect Benjamin Parco opted for a butterfly roof when he built a 21st century addition to a modern home in the Berkeley Hills.

“It didn’t look like a house, some people thought,” Krisel remembered. “For most traditionally minded people a house has a gable roof. If they want to get modern, they’ll go for a flat roof with higher or lower sections of ceiling.”

He might not have been traditionally minded, but Joe Eichler also seems not to have been a fan of butterfly roofed homes. Although his architects designed homes with butterfly roofs for other developers, for Eichler they produced very few.

A. Quincy Jones and his firm, Jones & Emmons, who were Eichler architects, reveled in the form. Jones designed butterfly roofs in the late 1940s as part of the Mutual Homes Association neigh­borhood in the Brentwood Hills, and for Tiny Naylor’s coffee shop in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s.

Jones & Emmons also designed a lively collection of butterfly-roofed houses for the Navy’s Capehart Housing complex near Sacramento, today a lovingly land­scaped rental neighborhood called the Arbors at Antelope.

Parkwood Eichler
Atherwood, an early Eichler subdivision in Redwood City, seems to hold the largest collection of butterfly roofs in Eichler's oeuvre. This is on Parkwood Way.

But for Joe, the butterfly was virtually no go. That’s why, whenever we spot butterfly roofs in Eichler neighborhoods, we take notice.

Sunnymount Gardens, a very early Eichler tract in Sunnyvale from the days before Joe hired architects, has several butterfly roofs.

More recently we spotted some of these winged roofs in another early Eichler tract, Atherwood in Redwood City. One of Eichler’s first tracts to be developed by real architects, the team of Anshen and Allen, the neighborhood won early attention.

Architectural Forum magazine awarded Eichler for subdivisions of the year in 1950, including Atherwood and three tracts in Palo Alto. Atherwood also won attention in the popular press, featured in an article in the November 1950 issue of Ladies Home Journal.

The Atherwood neighborhood, Eichler’s largest in Redwood City, with about 100 homes, has about ten with butterfly roofs. There are other jaunty rooflines as well, including many homes with single-sloped rooflines projecting over sections with flat roofs.

Atherwood home
Here's another Atherwood butterly.

By the 1970s, butterfly roofs were rare on new homes no matter who the developer was.

But over the past decade and a half, the but­terflies have been winging their way back onto the drawing boards, with architect after architect turning out new versions—from Michelle Kaufmann, who roofed her prefabricated Sunset Breezehouse with butterfly wings, to the Pritzker Prize-winning Australian architect Glen Murcutt, who prefers his butterfly wings to curve.

You’ll find butterfly-roofed homes of recent vintage in the Berkeley Hills, Manhattan Beach, Tucson, and Decatur, Georgia.

Joshua Aidlin, whose San Fran­cisco firm Aidlin Darling Design created a LEED plati­num, zero-net-energy-use home in Hillsborough, said its butterfly roof is a “two-for-one form that allows the views to be opened up,” while at the same time providing for efficient rainwater collection. On top of that, the butterfly wings conceal the home’s solar panels from view.

Architect Benjamin Parco, who with partners designed a butterfly roofed addition to a house in the Berkeley Hills, appreciates the butterfly roof for its visual capabilities as well as its ability to channel rainwater.

“You can play with it,” Parco says. “It’s more expressive than a flat roof and not as traditional as a hip or gable roof.”

For more about the migration of butterfly roofs, read 'Return of the Butterflies,' available online here and also as a 'classic revisted' in the new summer ‘20 issue of our print magazine, CA-Modern.

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