Architectural Considerations for New England Winters


When it comes to residential architecture it’s critical to consider the climate a property is built within to minimize homeowner headaches. In the southeast US and Caribbean that means thinking about hurricane windows, shutters and more. In the Pacific Northwest architects are cognizant of wildfires and explore fire retardant building materials. In New England we are ever mindful of water in all forms and in all places. Ice dams, snow, and ground water—we plan for each of these elements as we design and some of our go-to tactics are below.


Icicles may be pretty, but New Englanders know they are typically a sign of heat leaking from an attic. Our designs quietly fight ice from multiple angles. First we think about materials relevant to the pitch of a roof. Standing seam copper may be used on a lower slope roof and a membrane may be used on flat roofs instead of a shingle to mitigate the elements. Second, we specify that an Ice and Water Shield barrier be installed on the entirety of a roof as protection against the weather. In warmer climates, only the first 3 feet of roof plane might be covered but we don’t take chances in New England. Last, we recommend closed cell foam insulation on the interior of the entire roof because air and moisture are unable to permeate the hardened foam. Together with the protective barrier on the outside of the roof this leaves little to no opportunity for a water problem on the top floor as snow melts. 


Our timeless architecture is no match for snow thanks to proper foresight. Our homes are designed to handle exponentially more snow than nature could wallop so homeowners should not be shoveling off roofs or decking.

We’re often asked about snow related to carriage houses with iconic doors that open outward. How are they to swing open with snow blocking their way? Our design solution is radiant heat beneath a cobblestone apron in front of the carriage house doors. This feature is typically completed with hydronic heat without increasing the size of a home’s boiler. In cases where that may not be possible, electric heat is a good solution. Masonry like cobblestone and brick transfers heat incredibly well, melts the snow on the apron, and allows the doors to open without obstruction.

In addition, we often consider heating the carriage house slab. Standard practice will dictate a slab that’s pitched to drain at a minimum of 1/8” per foot so water from snow and ice will flow out of the structure. By heating the slab, however, a homeowner can drive a snowy car into the carriage house and the heat from below will help dry snow or water that falls off the car. The same principle applies for a mudroom floor, especially when covered in brick. Heating the floor not only makes for a pleasant experience underfoot during cold winter months, but it helps dry boots that have been walking in wet snow.

Ground Water

Though not unique to New England, ground water can be problematic and most houses in our region include basements. With this below-grade space fully programmed in the majority of our architecture, we always consider drainage. Waterproofed foundations, French drains, vapor barriers and sump pumps all become part of the plan as we work to keep a basement living space dry. Drainage is examined in this way even for renovations of homes without an ongoing water issue. In winters that experience significant snowfall, if the snow melts before the ground fully thaws almost any home’s below-grade space could be compromised.

Thanks to careful planning, our architecture is no match for harsh climates. If this discussion has you thinking about your home’s own winter headaches, contact us to learn how we might address the problem. In the interim, enjoy the snow!