Second Empire style homes share the characteristic mansard roof, a steeply sloping roof with slightly flared eaves. The dormer windows that penetrate the roof reveal its secret: the mansard roof disguises an additional story of living space. The steep pitch of the roof yields more usable space beneath it than a traditional gable roof. French and Italian influences dominate Second Empire designs, which tend to be more classical than other Victorian substyles, but they share the elaborate decoration of Victorian homes and were popular during the same era.
Second Empire designs are generally boxy in plan, though not always symmetrical, as a tower or bay may be a prominent feature. Formal rooms dominate traditional designs, but modern Second Empire home plans will offer up-to-date open floor plans wrapped in an elegant continental exterior.