Article borrowed from the National Parks Service

Part 2 of an article about historic roofing:

Failures of Support Systems

Once the condition of the roofing material has been determined, the related features and support systems should be examined on the exterior and on the interior of the roof. The gutters and downspouts need periodic cleaning and maintenance since a variety of debris fill them, causing water to back up and seep under roofing units. Water will eventually cause fasteners, sheathing, and roofing structure to deteriorate. During winter, the daily freeze-thaw cycles can cause ice floes to develop under the roof surface. The pressure from these ice floes will dislodge the roofing material, especially slates, shingles, or tiles. Moreover, the buildup of ice dams above the gutters can trap enough moisture to rot the sheathing or the structural members.

Many large public buildings have built-in gutters set within the perimeter of the roof. The downspouts for these gutters may run within the walls of the building, or drainage may be through the roof surface or through a parapet to exterior downspouts. These systems can be effective if properly maintained; however, if the roof slope is inadequate for good runoff, or if the traps are allowed to clog, rainwater will form pools on the roof surface. Interior downspouts can collect debris and thus back up, perhaps leaking water into the surrounding walls. Exterior downspouts may fill with water, which in cold weather may freeze and crack the pipes. Conduits from the built-in gutter to the exterior downspout may also leak water into the surrounding roof structure or walls.

Failure of the flashing system is usually a major cause of roof deterioration. Flashing should be carefully inspected for failure caused by either poor workmanship, thermal stress, or metal deterioration (both of flashing material itself and of the fasteners). With many roofing materials, the replacement of flashing on an existing roof is a major operation, which may require taking up large sections of the roof surface. Therefore, the installation of top quality flashing material on a new or replaced roof should be a primary consideration. Remember, some roofing and flashing materials are not compatible.

Because of the roof’s visibility, the slate detailing around the dormers is important to the character of this structure. Photo: NPS files.

Roof fasteners and clips should also be made of a material compatible with all other materials used, or coated to prevent rust. For example, the tannic acid in oak will corrode iron nails. Some roofs such as slate and sheet metals may fail if nailed too rigidly.

If the roof structure appears sound and nothing indicates recent movement, the area to be examined most closely is the roof substrate—the sheathing or the battens. The danger spots would be near the roof plates, under any exterior patches, at the intersections of the roof planes, or at vertical surfaces such as dormers. Water penetration, indicating a breach in the roofing surface or flashing, should be readily apparent, usually as a damp spot or stain. Probing with a small pen knife may reveal any rot which may indicate previously undetected damage to the roofing membrane. Insect infestation evident by small exit holes and frass (a sawdustlike debris) should also be noted. Condensation on the underside of the roofing is undesirable and indicates improper ventilation. Moisture will have an adverse effect on any roofing material; a good roof stays dry inside and out.

Repair or Replace

Understanding potential weaknesses of roofing material also requires knowledge of repair difficulties. Individual slates can be replaced normally without major disruption to the rest of the roof, but replacing flashing on a slate roof can require substantial removal of surrounding slates. If it is the substrate or a support material that has deteriorated, many surface materials such as slate or tile can be reused if handled care fully during the repair. Such problems should be evaluated at the outset of any project to determine if the roof can be effectively patched, or if it should be completely replaced.

Will the repairs be effective? Maintenance costs tend to multiply once trouble starts. As the cost of labor escalates, repeated repairs could soon equal the cost of a new roof.

The more durable the surface is initially, the easier it will be to maintain. Some roofing materials such as slate are expensive to install, but if top quality slate and flashing are used, it will last 40–60 years with minimal maintenance. Although the installation cost of the roof will be high, low maintenance needs will make the lifetime cost of the roof less expensive.

Historical Research

In a restoration project, research of documents and physical investigation of the building usually will establish the roof’s history. Documentary research should include any original plans or building specifications, early insurance surveys, newspaper descriptions, or the personal papers and files of people who owned or were involved in the history of the building. Old photographs of the building might provide evidence of missing details.

Along with a thorough understanding of any written history of the building, a physical investigation of the roofing and its structure may reveal information about the roof’s construction history. Starting with an overall impression of the structure, are there any changes in the roof slope, its configuration, or roofing materials? Perhaps there are obvious patches or changes in patterning of exterior brickwork where a gable roof was changed to a gambrel, or where a whole upper story was added. Perhaps there are obvious stylistic changes in the roof line, dormers, or ornamentation. These observations could help one understand any important alteration, and could help establish the direction of further investigation.

Because most roofs are physically out of the range of careful scrutiny, the “principle of least effort” has probably limited the extent and quality of previous patching or replacing, and usually considerable evidence of an earlier roof surface remains. Sometimes the older roof will be found as an underlayment of the current exposed roof. Original roofing may still be intact in awkward places under later features on a roof. Often if there is any unfinished attic space, remnants of roofing may have been dropped and left when the roof was being built or repaired. If the configuration of the roof has been changed, some of the original material might still be in place under the existing roof. Sometimes whole sections of the roof and roof framing will have been left intact under the higher roof. The profile and/or flashing of the earlier roof may be apparent on the interior of the walls at the level of the alteration. If the sheathing or lathing appears to have survived changes in the roofing surface, they may contain evidence of the roofing systems. These may appear either as dirt marks, which provide “shadows” of a roofing material, or as nails broken or driven down into the wood,.rather than pulled out during previous alterations or repairs. Wooden headers in the roof framing may indicate that earlier chimneys or skylights have been removed. Any metal ornamentation that might have existed may be indicated by anchors or unusual markings along the ridge or at other edges of the roof. This primary evidence is essential for a full understanding of the roof’s history.

Caution should be taken in dating early “fabric” on the evidence of a single item, as recycling of materials is not a mid-20th century innovation. Carpenters have been reusing materials, sheathing, and framing members in the interest of economy for centuries. Therefore, any analysis of the materials found, such as nails or sawmarks on the wood, requires an accurate knowledge of the history of local building practices before any final conclusion can be accurately reached. It is helpful to establish a sequence of construction history for the roof and roofing materials; any historic fabric or pertinent evidence in the roof should be photographed, measured, and recorded for future reference.

During the repair work, useful evidence might unexpectedly appear. It is essential that records be kept of any type of work on a historic building, before, during, and after the project. Photographs are generally the easiest and fastest method, and should include overall views and details at the gutters, flashing, dormers, chimneys, valleys, ridges, and eaves. All photographs should be immediately labeled to insure accurate identification at a later date. Any patterning or design on the roofing deserves particular attention. For example, slate roofs are often decorative and have subtle changes in size, color, and texture, such as a gradually decreasing coursing length from the eave to the peak. If not carefully noted before a project begins, there may be problems in replacing the surface. The standard reference for this phase of the work is Recording Historic Buildings, compiled by Harley J. McKee for the Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1970.

Replacing the Historic Roofing Material

Good design and quality materials for the roof surface, fastenings, and flashing minimize failures. Photo: NPS files.

Professional advice will be needed to assess the various aspects of replacing a historic roof. With some exceptions, most historic roofing materials are available today. If not, an architect or preservation group who has previously worked with the same type material may be able to recommend suppliers. Special roofing materials, such as tile or embossed metal shingles, can be produced by manufacturers of related products that are commonly used elsewhere, either on the exterior or interior of a structure. With some creative thinking and research, the historic materials usually can be found.

Craft Practices: Determining the craft practices used in the installation of a historic roof is another major concern in roof restoration. Early builders took great pride in their work, and experience has shown that the ” rustic” or irregular designs commercially labeled “Early American” are a 20th-century invention. For example, historically, wood shingles underwent several distinct operations in their manufacture including splitting by hand, and smoothing the surface with a draw knife. In modern nomenclature, the same item would be a “tapersplit” shingle which has been dressed. Unfortunately, the rustic appearance of today’s commercially available “handsplit” and re-sawn shingle bears no resemblance to the handmade roofing materials used on early American buildings.

Early craftsmen worked with a great deal of common sense; they understood their materials. For example they knew that wood shingles should be relatively narrow; shingles much wider than about 6″ would split when walked on, or they may curl or crack from varying temperature and moisture. It is important to understand these aspects of craftsmanship, remembering that people wanted their roofs to be weather-tight and to last a long time. The recent use of “mother goose” shingles on historic structures is a gross underestimation of the early craftsman’s skills.

Supervision: Finding a modern craftsman to reproduce historic details may take some effort. It may even involve some special instruction to raise his understanding of certain historic craft practices. At the same time, it may be pointless (and expensive) to follow historic craft practices in any construction that will not be visible on the finished product. But if the roofing details are readily visible, their appearance should be based on architectural evidence or on historic prototypes. For instance, the spacing of the seams on a standing-seam metal roof will affect the building’s overall scale and should therefore match the original dimensions of the seams.

Many older roofing practices are no longer performed because of modern improvements. Research and review of specific detailing in the roof with the contractor before beginning the project is highly recommended. For example, one early craft practice was to finish the ridge of a wood shingle roof with a roof “comb”—that is, the top course of one slope of the roof was extended uniformly beyond the peak to shield the ridge, and to provide some weather protection for the raw horizontal edges of the shingles on the other slope. If the “comb” is known to have been the correct detail, it should be used. Though this method leaves the top course vulnerable to the weather, a disguised strip of flashing will strengthen this weak point.

Detail drawings or a sample mock-up will help ensure that the contractor or craftsman understands the scope and special requirements of the project. It should never be assumed that the modern carpenter, slater, sheet metal worker, or roofer will know all the historic details. Supervision is as important as any other stage of the process.

Alternative Materials

The use of the historic roofing material on a structure may be restricted by building codes or by the availability of the materials, in which case an appropriate alternative will have to be found.

Some municipal building codes allow variances for roofing materials in historic districts. In other instances, individual variances may be obtained. Most modern heating and cooking is fueled by gas, electricity, or oil–none of which emit the hot embers that historically have been the cause of roof fires. Where wood burning fireplaces or stoves are used, spark arrestor screens at the top of the chimneys help to prevent flaming material from escaping, thus reducing the number of fires that start at the roof. In most states, insurance rates have been equalized to reflect revised considerations for the risks involved with various roofing materials.

In a rehabilitation project, there may be valid reasons for replacing the roof with a material other than the original. The historic roofing may no longer be available, or the cost of obtaining specially fabricated materials may be prohibitive. But the decision to use an alternative material should be weighed carefully against the primary concern to keep the historic character of the building. If the roof is flat and is not visible from any elevation of the building, and if there are advantages to substituting a modern built-up composition roof for what might have been a flat metal roof, then it may make better economic and construction sense to use a modern roofing method. But if the roof is readily visible, the alternative material should match as closely as possible the scale, texture, and coloration of the historic roofing material.

Asphalt shingles or ceramic tiles are common substitute materials intended to duplicate the appearance of wood shingles, slates, or tiles. Fire-retardant, treated wood shingles are currently available. The treated wood tends, however, to be brittle, and may require extra care (and expense) to install. In some instances, shingles laid with an interlay of fire-retardant building paper may be an acceptable alternative.

Lead-coated copper, terne-coated steel, and aluminum/ zinc-coated steel can successfully replace tin, terne plate, zinc, or lead. Copper-coated steel is a less expensive (and less durable) substitute for sheet copper.

The search for alternative roofing materials is not new. As early as the 18th century, fear of fire caused many wood shingle or board roofs to be replaced by sheet metal or clay tile. Some historic roofs were failures from the start, based on overambitious and naive use of materials as they were first developed. Research on a structure may reveal that an inadequately designed or a highly combustible roof was replaced early in its history, and therefore restoration of a later roof material would have a valid precedent. In some cities, the substitution of sheet metal on early row houses occurred as soon as the rolled material became available.

Cost and ease of maintenance may dictate the substitution of a material wholly different in appearance from the original. The practical problems (wind, weather, and roof pitch) should be weighed against the historical consideration of scale, texture, and color. Sometimes the effect of the alternative material will be minimal. But on roofs with a high degree of visibility and patterning or texture, the substitution may seriously alter the architectural character of the building.

Temporary Stabilization

It may be necessary to carry out an immediate and temporary stabilization to prevent further deterioration until research can determine how the roof should be restored or rehabilitated, or until funding can be provided to do a proper job. A simple covering of exterior plywood or roll roofing might provide adequate protection, but any temporary covering should be applied with caution. One should be careful not to overload the roof structure, or to damage or destroy historic evidence or fabric that might be incorporated into a new roof at a later date. In this sense, repairs with caulking or bituminous patching compounds should be recognized as potentially harmful, since they are difficult to remove, and at their best, are very temporary.


The architect or contractor should warn the owner of any precautions to be taken against the specific hazards in installing the roofing material. Soldering of sheet metals, for instance, can be a fire hazard, either from the open flame or from overheating and undetected smoldering of the wooden substrate materials.

Thought should be given to the design and placement of any modern roof appurtenances such as plumbing stacks, air vents, or TV antennas. Consideration should begin with the placement of modern plumbing on the interior of the building, otherwise a series of vent stacks may pierce the roof membrane at various spots creating maintenance problems as well as aesthetic ones. Air handling units placed in the attic space will require vents which, in turn, require sensitive design. Incorporating these in unused chimneys has been very successful in the past.

Whenever gutters and downspouts are needed that were not on the building historically, the additions should be made as unobtrusively as possible, perhaps by painting them out with a color compatible with the nearby wall or trim.


Special problems inherent in the design of an elaborate historic roof can be controlled through regular maintenance. The shape and detailing are essential elements of the building’s historic character, and should not be modified, despite the use of alternative surface materials. Photo: NPS files.

Although a new roof can be an object of beauty, it will not be protective for long without proper maintenance. At least twice a year, the roof should be inspected against a checklist. All changes should be recorded and reported. Guidelines should be established for any foot traffic that may be required for the maintenance of the roof. Many roofing materials should not be walked on at all. For some—slate, asbestos, and clay tile—a self-supporting ladder might be hung over the ridge of the roof, or planks might be spanned across the roof surface. Such items should be specifically designed and kept in a storage space accessible to the roof. If exterior work ever requires hanging scaffolding, use caution to insure that the anchors do not penetrate, break, or wear the roofing surface, gutters, or flashing.

Any roofing system should be recognized as a membrane that is designed to be self-sustaining, but that can be easily damaged by intrusions such as pedestrian traffic or fallen tree branches. Certain items should be checked at specific times. For example, gutters tend to accumulate leaves and debris during the spring and fall and after heavy rain. Hidden gutter screening both at downspouts and over the full length of the gutter could help keep them clean. The surface material would require checking after a storm as well. Periodic checking of the underside of the roof from the attic after a storm or winter freezing may give early warning of any leaks. Generally, damage from water or ice is less likely on a roof that has good flashing on the outside and is well ventilated and insulated on the inside. Specific instructions for the maintenance of the different roof materials should be available from the architect or contractor.