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What Are the Different Types of Roof Access?

Klaus Strasser
Klaus Strasser

In general, there are two main types of roof access: stairwells and doors that open onto a roof space, and hatches or windows that can open to provide sunlight, ventilation, and often physical access in case of needed repairs. Sometimes attic access, often through a ladder or internal door, is also included, though in most cases attics are themselves enclosed and don’t actually allow people to get to the roof. A lot of this depends on the type and style of construction at issue. In homes and single-family residences, roof access is usually considered to be something of a luxury. In larger structures, including many high-density apartments and office buildings, access is often required by local governments, usually as a means of safety in case of fire or other emergency. Sometimes access is also important in warehouses or industrial complexes for moving heavy machinery and tools in and out.

Doorways and Stairwells

Attic ladders are a type of roof access product.
Attic ladders are a type of roof access product.

One of the most common ways people access a roof space is with stairs. Most large buildings have stairwells that run from the ground level up to the roof, though the roof entrance is often more primitive or less developed since it isn’t usually designed for everyday access. Exceptions include buildings with garden or lounge space on their roofs; in these cases, access is often the same as it is for any other floor. More often, the roof is a place where people don’t go unless there’s an emergency or unless they’re part of a crew sent to assess damage or service things like air conditioning units or generators that are placed at the top of the building. In these instances, roof access is often tightly controlled with locks, alarm systems, or both.

Ventilation and Light

A top-hinged roof window allows for roof access.
A top-hinged roof window allows for roof access.

The other common type of access involves predominantly access to light and air, rather than access to the physical roof space itself. Roof ventilation allows air and sunlight into a dwelling. It can also vent hot air and replace it with cooler, fresher air. Such openings can also introduce light into otherwise enclosed spaces like attics, which can deter cockroaches and other unwanted animals from taking up residence there.

Roof hatches have a very basic design, consisting of a small access opening installed on a roof. These typically range from 30 to 40 inches (76.2 to 101.6 cm) in diameter, and are usually made from materials like galvanized steel. In the installation process, a hole is cut into the roof according to the specific measurements of the hatch, which is then placed into the opening. Access is usually gained by manually opening or propping the window, though some of the most modern models have been automated so that they work with the push of a button or the flip of a switch.

Mechanized Roof Openings

As the name suggests, an opening roof is a type of roof that completely opens. It is usually manufactured by companies that designed the product to fit the specific dimensions of a home. A motorized electrical device is generally used to open the roof, similar to the way a garage door opens, although for smaller models manually-operated wenches can be substituted.

Attic Access

Attic ladders are sometimes also considered a type of roof access, though in most cases they are intended for attic access only. The ladder can convert an attic from an unusable storage place into a dynamic part of the home. These ladders are usually customized to fit the measurements of a home, and are designed with safety in mind. Such safety features can include parts like spring-lever mechanisms and steel brackets. Most are equipped with a railing to ensure people do not fall while using them.

Regulations and Local Requirements

Many municipalities have guidelines setting out safety standards for accessing roofs, particularly for remodels or additions to private residences. These regulations can determine which products can be installed. Accordingly, it can be a good idea to check building codes before making a decision about a specific access product or door for a home.

In many cases it’s also required for builders and architects to anticipate at least some way out through the top of a building. Should a fire break out on an upper floor, for instance, evacuating down to ground level may not be possible; getting to the roof is often the safest way for people to avoid smoke and make themselves known to emergency personnel below.

Discussion Comments


Instead of cutting a hole into the roof for a hatch that takes you to the roof, I would prefer to attach a metal roof access ladder to the side or back of the house. This way you can climb to the roof anytime you want and you don't have to pull the ladder from the garage or climb into the attic when you need to reach the roof.

Also, you don't have to add another hole in the roof, which costs more money than attaching the ladder and is more likely to lead to other complications.


Roof access hatches are one of the leading causes of leaks. Anytime you notice a leak in your house, the first places you should check are openings onto the roof. This also includes any vents and chimneys. When the flashing around these openings gets loose, water will find a path into your house, and flashing can loosen over time.

When you install a new roof hatch be sure to have a professional roofer do the work, and double check that the roofers have sufficiently sealed the opening so you won't have any future issues with water coming into the house.


I never thought about roof access until recently. We have been getting leaks in the house when it rains, and I have gone back and forth on the roof trying to patch the spots that are allowing the water to seep into the house. Not only does our house not have a roof access from the attic, but we don't have a tall enough ladder, so my trips to the roof have been a challenge.

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    • Attic ladders are a type of roof access product.
      By: mimadeo
      Attic ladders are a type of roof access product.
    • A top-hinged roof window allows for roof access.
      By: dbrus
      A top-hinged roof window allows for roof access.