Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

The Roofing Revolution

Few parts of your house are exposed to the elements as completely as the roof. The roof has to rise above anything the sky throws at it - rain, snow, hail, ultraviolet radiation. Its surface suffers the extremes of temperature, in many places reaching 120° F in the summer sun and falling well below zero in the winter. And after it contends with those challenges, we still expect the roof to shed water and keep the structure snug and dry. It's no wonder a new roof is often one of the first major maintenance projects that homes require. Whether you're shopping for a roof for a new home or considering replacing the roof on an existing structure, there are lots of things to think about. In fact, there are more choices than ever before in roofing. There's been a revolution in recent years in materials, styles and colors - so many alternatives that homeowners can be excused for being a little overwhelmed. One of the first factors to consider is what you're willing to spend, not only for the materials but also for the installation. The range is wide, from relatively inexpensive, traditional asphalt roofing to much more expensive premium materials like slate, with many stops in between. Then there's the question of what you want your roof to look like. Here, too, you have a far bigger choice than the black or gray of yesteryear - red, green, blue, white and brown, among others. Let your imagination run wild, but remember that you (or the next owners of the house) will be living with the decision for at least a couple decades and maybe much longer. (Before doing anything truly avant garde, check with local officials or your neighborhood association to find out if there are restrictions on roof colors in your area.) Your climate might limit your choices, too. If your house is in an area known for high winds, you'll want to careful about which roofing product you choose; look for designs specifically rated to stand up to hurricane-force winds. Similarly, you don't want a lot of sun-dried wood shakes on your roof if you live in an area prone to wildfires, unless of course you use a wood product specifically treated with fire-resistant chemicals. Your choice of roofing material can affect the energy efficiency of your house as well. Asphalt shingles hug the roof, so when they heat up, the roof heats up and some of that heat makes its way into the house. This is great in the winter, not so great on a hot summer day when the air conditioner is already working hard. On the other hand, some products, including roofing tiles and some metal roofs, are installed with a lot of airspace between the roof and the tile at some points, so there's better airflow around them. This helps the roof shed heat. Beyond the structural considerations, the color of your roof also plays a part in energy efficiency. Obviously, dark colors attract more heat from the sun and light colors reflect more heat. If you live in a cold climate, a dark roof will help during heating season, and probably not hurt too much in the summer. The converse is true for lighter colors in the South. So, given all that, what do you want to put on top of your house? Here's a quick rundown on the various choices. Asphalt Asphalt-shingle roofs look fine on almost any house styles. The great variety of color choices allows you to harmonize the roof color with the siding on the house and the landscape. Asphalt shingles cover the vast majority of residential roofs across the country. The main reason is the relatively low cost of the shingles. When talking about the costs and quantities of roofing materials, contractors talk in terms of "squares," meaning 100 square feet, or a 10x10 section of roof. Three bundles of standard three-tab shingles cover one square. Though there are several quality grades of asphalt shingles available, an average grade costs about $26 per square. There are two types of asphalt shingles - organic and fiberglass-reinforced. Organic shingles are made of wood fibers formed into a mat and then saturated with asphalt and coated with small granules of colored gravel. These were the original asphalt shingles; most manufacturers now concentrate their production lines on fiberglass-reinforced shingles. Fiberglass-reinforced shingles - sometimes called laminated shingles - consist of a kind of sandwich, with a fiberglass mat in the middle and layers of asphalt on both sides. The colored mineral granules are applied to the top side only. All roofing materials carry a fire-resistance rating, listing Class A, B, or C somewhere on the packaging. Class A roofing materials have the highest resistance, and Class C has the lowest. Most fiberglass-reinforced shingles have Class A resistance, while organic shingles, with their wood content, often rate only a Class C. You can't really tell the difference between organic and fiberglass shingles just by looking at them, and both types carry warranties from 15 to 40 years depending on the quality grade. In the higher grades, also called architectural grades, the shingles are thicker with more layers of reinforcement and asphalt, and they often have some additional features. The greater thickness of the shingles allows the manufacturer to add textures and patterns to give the roof more visual interest. In warmer and more humid sections of the country, and in any area where a roof is heavily shaded, there can be a problem with algae growing on asphalt shingles. To combat that, manufacturers offer shingles with zinc- or copper-coated granules that resist algae growth. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has standards for both organic and fiberglass-reinforced shingles - ASTM D225 and ASTM D3462, respectively. Whether you install shingles yourself or hire a contractor, make sure your shingles list compliance to these standards on the packaging. Non-complying products could have a significantly shorter life. Asphalt shingle installation is pretty straightforward, so you can tackle it yourself if you've got the time. There are some subtle techniques that make the difference between a professional-looking installation and sloppy one, however, so buy a book on the subject and study it well before you begin. Wood Shingles Wood shingles and shakes have a distinctive, classic look that recalls the times before asphalt shingles were widely available. Cedar is probably the most popular wood for shakes and shingles, though redwood and southern yellow pine are used as well. Both cedar and redwood have natural resistance to rot and insect damage, though pine usually requires a factory chemical treatment to stand up to the conditions on the roof. It may also require re-treatment every few years to maintain the protection. Shingles are sawn from logs in a sawmill, while shakes are hand split and have a more textured surface. Some building codes limit the use of wood shingles and shakes due to the higher fire risk these materials have. Most wood roofing products are rated at Class C or worse for fire resistance, so consider carefully before you choose one. You can find wood shingles that are treated with a fire-resistant chemical process and achieve a Class A fire rating. Again, the treatment might need to be rejuvenated occasionally with a roof-applied spray. Prices for wood shingles range from around $100 to $150 per square plus a contractor's time to install them properly. Shakes will cost about $25 more per square. If you live in an area that allows wood roofing, you'll find that any treating and cleaning you have to do is well worth the effort - this is arguably one of the most attractive roof choices out there. The look is very popular on the West Coast and stands out in a crowd of asphalt-shingled houses anywhere in the country. You might read about untreated cedar-shingle roofs lasting 30 or 40 years in the early 19th century, but remember that those shingles were cut from old-growth trees with lots of the natural resins that protected the wood from rot and insects. Today's new-growth trees haven't had time to develop this saturation of resins, and the life expectancy of this type of roof system is closer to 10 to 25 years, though that can be extended with appropriate maintenance. There are also a number of new products on the market that look like wood shakes but are cheaper and lighter than the real thing. These are usually easy for a contractor to install, too. Tile Tiles in clay or concrete are a popular option in the Southwest but also work well in any area of the country, especially on houses with a traditional Spanish design. Roofing tile can easily outlast the people who buy it. Tile is made from either clay or concrete and is formed into curved or flat tiles as it dries. Clay tiles are fired in a kiln to harden them. Individual tiles can weigh as much as 5 or 10 pounds, but lightweight versions (with some cellulose fibers as filler) reduce that weight to around 6 pounds. If you consider putting tile (or for that matter, slate) on a roof that's only had asphalt shingles before, you'd better have an engineer assess the structure before any installation. Not every roof has enough strength in the rafters to support these heavy materials. Curved tiles, often called Spanish tiles, are a classic roof system in the Southwest and in Florida, and if properly installed, will stand up well to hurricane-force winds. Red is the traditional color for roof tiles, mostly because the first tiles were made from clay with a lot of iron oxide in it, but they are available in several colors today. Find out if the pigment is mixed into the clay before the tiles are formed, or painted on afterwards. Either system works fine, but a painted tile might show small chips more clearly than would a tile that's the same color all the way through. Tile is fairly expensive, generally running around $300 per square just for materials. You'll definitely need an experienced installer to do the job for you. The good news is that the roof can be expected to last 50 years or more. Slate There's nothing like a layer of stone between you and the elements, and slate roofs are virtually maintenance-free and nearly indestructible. Slate is quarried from Vermont to Virginia and is a typical roof material on older Victorian-style homes all along the East Coast. The color choices are fairly limited, but you can find some shading variations if you shop around. Though a slate roof can last up to 100 years, the initial costs are high. Typical prices run around $540 per square for materials, plus a skilled installation. There are imitation slate products available that use a mix of stone and concrete to cast shingles, and these cost about half as much are the real thing. The expected lifespan is shorter for these products, typically from 40 to 60 years. Metal Metal roofs look good on both traditional and modern house designs and are especially popular in extreme climates, such as high wind areas and places with heavy snowfall or in areas where wildfires are a danger. Metal roofing has many advantages. It's lightweight, tough and moderately priced, usually costing around $250 per square, depending on the type. Standing-seam steel roofing is the most popular metal option. Some companies form and tint steel and aluminum to emulate wood shakes and tile, while others make stone-coated metal shingles. From the ground, it's hard to spot the difference between these products and traditional asphalt shingles. Like many shingles these days, metal roofing is available in a wide variety of colors, many of them quite striking. In many cases, metal roofs can be installed directly over an existing roof, often by using a batten grid that allows the addition of insulation. A steel roof will last from 20 to 50 years and is a good, low-maintenance option. A steel roof is very efficient at shedding snow, so it's a good choice in the Snow Belt. Choosing a Contractor After you get a few estimates for your roofing project, ask each contractor for a list of previous roofing jobs that you can check out. Talk to the homeowners, if possible, to find out how smoothly the project went. Ask to see a contractor's proof of insurance and certificates of liability coverage and workers' compensation. If the company isn't properly insured, you may be liable for accidents and injuries that occur on your property. Insist on a written contract, and make sure it contains a complete description of the work to be done, materials specifications, post-job clean-up standards, approximate starting and completion dates, and payment arrangements. Find out which of the contractor's employees will be leading the job and approximately how many workers will be on the job on a typical day. Work out where the workers will access power and which bathroom you want them to use. Ask if the contractor belongs to any regional or national industry associations, such as the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA). Call the Better Business Bureau or Department of Professional Regulation to make sure the company has a clean legal record. Read the warranties on your roofing materials carefully, and if the warranty requires a certified installer, make sure your contractor has the appropriate certifications. Follow this advice, and your new roof will be pain-free.