Article borrowed from the National Parks Service
Significance of the Roof
A weather-tight roof is basic in the preservation of a structure, regardless of its age, size, or design. In the system that allows a building to work as a shelter, the roof sheds the rain, shades from the sun, and buffers the weather.
During some periods in the history of architecture, the roof imparts much of the architectural character. It defines the style and contributes to the building’s aesthetics. The hipped roofs of Georgian architecture, the turrets of Queen Anne, the Mansard roofs, and the graceful slopes of the Shingle Style and Bungalow designs are examples of the use of roofing as a major design feature.
But no matter how decorative the patterning or how compelling the form, the roof is a highly vulnerable element of a shelter that will inevitably fail. A poor roof will permit the accelerated deterioration of historic building materials—masonry, wood, plaster, paint—and will cause general disintegration of the basic structure. Furthermore, there is an urgency involved in repairing a
leaky roof since such repair costs will quickly become prohibitive. Although such action is desirable as soon as a failure is discovered, temporary patching methods should be carefully chosen to prevent inadvertent damage to sound or historic roofing materials and related features. Before any repair work is performed, the historic value of the materials used on the roof should be understood. Then a complete internal and external inspection of the roof should be planned to determine all the causes of failure and to identify the alternatives for repair or replacement of the roofing.
Historic Roofing Materials in America
Clay Tile: European settlers used clay tile for roofing as early as the mid-17th century; many pantiles (S-curved tiles), as well as flat roofing tiles, were used in Jamestown, Virginia. In some cities such as New York and Boston, clay was popularly used as a precaution against such fires as those that engulfed London in 1666 and scorched Boston in 1679.
Repairs on this pantile roof were made with new tiles held in place with metal hangers. Photo: NPS files.
The plain or flat rectangular tiles most commonly used from the 17th through the beginning of the 19th century measured about 10″ by 6″ by 1/2,” and had two holes at one end for a nail or peg fastener. Sometimes mortar was applied between the courses to secure the tiles in a heavy wind.
In the mid-19th century, tile roofs were often replaced by sheet-metal roofs, which were lighter and easier to install and maintain. However, by the turn of the century, the Romanesque Revival and Mission style buildings created a new demand and popularity for this picturesque roofing material.
Slate: Another practice settlers brought to the New World was slate roofing. Evidence of roofing slates have been found also among the ruins of mid-17th century Jamestown. But because of the cost and the time required to obtain the material, which was mostly imported from Wales, the use of slate was initially limited. Even in Philadelphia (the second largest city in the English-speaking world at the time of the Revolution) slates were so rare that “The Slate Roof House” distinctly referred to William Penn’s home built late in the 1600s. Sources of native slate were known to exist along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Virginia, but difficulties in inland transportation limited its availability to the cities, and contributed to its expense. Welsh slate continued to be imported until the development of canals and railroads in the mid-19th century made American slate more accessible and economical.
Slate was popular for its durability, fireproof qualities, and aesthetic potential. Because slate was available in different colors (red, green, purple, and blue-gray), it was an effective material for decorative patterns on many 19th century roofs (Gothic and Mansard styles). Slate continued to be used well into the 20th century, notably on many Tudor revival style buildings of the 1920s.
Replacement of particular historic details is important to the individual historic character of a roof, such as this rounded butt wood shingle roof. In the restoration, the drainage around a dormer was improved by the addition of carefully concealed modern metal flashing. Photo: NPS files.
Shingles: Wood shingles were popular throughout the country in all periods of building history. The size and shape of the shingles as well as the detailing of the shingle roof differed according to regional craft practices. People within particular regions developed preferences for the local species of wood that most suited their purposes. In New England and the Delaware Valley, white pine was frequently used: in the South, cypress and oak; in the far west, red cedar or redwood. Sometimes a protective coating was applied to increase the durability of the shingle such as a mixture of brick dust and fish oil, or a paint made of red iron oxide and linseed oil.
Commonly in urban areas, wooden roofs were replaced with more fire resistant materials, but in rural areas this was not a major concern. On many Victorian country houses, the practice of wood shingling survived the technological advances of metal roofing in the 19th century, and near the turn of the century enjoyed a full revival in its namesake, the Shingle Style. Colonial revival and the Bungalow styles in the 20th century assured wood shingles a place as one of the most fashionable, domestic roofing materials.
Galvanized sheet-metal shingles imitating the appearance of pantiles remained popular from the second half of the 19th century into the 20th century. Photo: NPS files.
Metal: Metal roofing in America is principally a 19th-century phenomenon. Before then the only metals commonly used were lead and copper. For example, a lead roof covered “Rosewell,” one of the grandest mansions in 18th century Virginia. But more often, lead was used for protective flashing. Lead, as well as copper, covered roof surfaces where wood, tile, or slate shingles were inappropriate because of the roof’s pitch or shape.
Copper with standing seams covered some of the more notable early American roofs including that of Christ Church (1727–1744) in Philadelphia. Flat-seamed copper was used on many domes and cupolas. The copper sheets were imported from England until the end of the 18th century when facilities for rolling sheet metal were developed in America.
Sheet iron was first known to have been manufactured here by the Revolutionary War financier, Robert Morris, who had a rolling mill near Trenton, New Jersey. At his mill Morris produced the roof of his own Philadelphia mansion, which he started in 1794. The architect Benjamin H. Latrobe used sheet iron to replace the roof on Princeton’s “Nassau Hall,” which had been gutted by fire in 1802.
The method for corrugating iron was originally patented in England in 1829. Corrugating stiffened the sheets, and allowed greater span over a lighter framework, as well as reduced installation time and labor. In 1834 the American architect William Strickland proposed corrugated iron to cover his design for the market place in Philadelphia.
Galvanizing with zinc to protect the base metal from rust was developed in France in 1837. By the 1850s the material was used on post offices and customhouses, as well as on train sheds and factories. In 1857 one of the first metal roofs in the South was installed on the U.S. Mint in New Orleans. The Mint was thereby “fireproofed” with a 20-gauge galvanized, corrugated iron roof on iron trusses.
Tin shingles, commonly embossed to imitate wood or tile, or with a decorative design, were popular as an inexpensive, textured roofing material. Photo: NPS files.
Tin-plate iron, commonly called “tin roofing,” was used extensively in Canada in the 18th century, but it was not as common in the United States until later. Thomas Jefferson was an early advocate of tin roofing, and he installed a standing-seam tin roof on “Monticello” (ca. 1770–1802). The Arch Street Meetinghouse (1804) in Philadelphia had tin shingles laid in a herringbone pattern on a “piazza” roof.
However, once rolling mills were established in this country, the low cost, light weight, and low maintenance of tin plate made it the most common roofing material. Embossed tin shingles, whose surfaces created interesting patterns, were popular throughout the country in the late 19th century. Tin roofs were kept well-painted, usually red; or, as the architect A. J. Davis suggested, in a color to imitate the green patina of copper.
Terne plate differed from tin plate in that the iron was dipped in an alloy of lead and tin, giving it a duller finish. Historic, as well as modern, documentation often confuses the two, so much that it is difficult to determine how often actual “terne” was used.
Zinc came into use in the 1820’s, at the same time tin plate was becoming popular. Although a less expensive substitute for lead, its advantages were controversial, and it was never widely used in this country.
Other Materials: Asphalt shingles and roll roofing were used in the 1890s. Many roofs of asbestos, aluminum, stainless steel, galvanized steel, and lead-coated copper may soon have historic values as well. Awareness of these and other traditions of roofing materials and their detailing will contribute to more sensitive preservation treatments.
Locating the Problem
Failures of Surface Materials
When trouble occurs, it is important to contact a professional, either an architect, a reputable roofing contractor, or a craftsman familiar with the inherent characteristics of the particular historic roofing system involved. These professionals may be able to advise on immediate patching procedures and help plan more permanent repairs. A thorough examination of the roof should start with an appraisal of the existing condition and quality of the roofing material itself. Particular attention should be given to any southern slope because year-round exposure to direct sun may cause it to break down first.
Wood: Some historic roofing materials have limited life expectancies because of normal organic decay and “wear.” For example, the flat surfaces of wood shingles erode from exposure to rain and ultraviolet rays. Some species are more hardy than others, and heartwood, for example, is stronger and more durable than sapwood.
Ideally, shingles are split with the grain perpendicular to the surface. This is because if shingles are sawn across the grain, moisture may enter the grain and cause the wood to deteriorate. Prolonged moisture on or in the wood allows moss or fungi to grow, which will further hold the moisture and cause rot.
Metal: Of the inorganic roofing materials used on historic buildings, the most common are perhaps the sheet metals: lead, copper, zinc, tin plate, terne plate, and galvanized iron. In varying degrees each of these sheet metals are likely to deteriorate from chemical action by pitting or streaking. This can be caused by airborne pollutants; acid rainwater; acids from lichen or moss; alkalis found in lime mortars or portland cement, which might be on adjoining features and washes down on the roof surface; or tannic acids from adjacent wood sheathings or shingles made of red cedar or oak.
Temporary stabilization or “mothballing” with materials, such as plywood and building paper, can protect the roof of a project until it can be properly repaired or replaced. Photo: NPS files.
Corrosion from “galvanic action” occurs when dissimilar metals, such as copper and iron, are used in direct contact. Corrosion may also occur even though the metals are physically separated; one of the metals will react chemically against the other in the presence of an electrolyte such as rainwater. In roofing, this situation might occur when either a copper roof is decorated with iron cresting, or when steel nails are used in copper sheets. In some instances the corrosion can be prevented by inserting a plastic insulator between the dissimilar materials. Ideally, the fasteners should be a metal sympathetic to those involved.
Iron rusts unless it is well-painted or plated. Historically this problem was avoided by use of tin plating or galvanizing. But this method is durable only as long as the coating remains intact. Once the plating is worn or damaged, the exposed iron will rust. Therefore, any iron-based roofing material needs to be undercoated, and its surface needs to be kept well-painted to prevent corrosion.
One cause of sheet metal deterioration is fatigue. Depending upon the size and the gauge of the metal sheets, wear and metal failure can occur at the joints or at any protrusions in the sheathing as a result from the metal’s alternating movement to thermal changes. Lead will tear because of “creep,” or the gravitational stress that causes the material to move down the roof slope.
Slate: Perhaps the most durable roofing materials are slate and tile. Seemingly indestructible, both vary in quality. Some slates are hard and tough without being brittle. Soft slates are more subject to erosion and to attack by airborne and rainwater chemicals, which cause the slates to wear at nail holes, to delaminate, or to break. In winter, slate is very susceptible to breakage by ice, or ice dams.
Tile: Tiles will weather well, but tend to crack or break if hit, as by tree branches, or if they are walked on improperly. Like slates, tiles cannot support much weight. Low quality tiles that have been insufficiently fired during manufacture, will craze and spall under the effects of freeze and thaw cycles on their porous surfaces.