The History of Roofing
The roof over your head, as simple as it may seem, is a product of building evolution. Roofs have allowed us to live more comfortably in extreme climates, they provide us with shelter from the weather, and they can add an element of beauty to your home. In fact, many roofs have become a part of an architectural masterpiece such as Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Russia, the Taj Majal, in India or the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
Skin, Sod, Thatch
The first roofing material known to man was a large wooly mammoth skin dating back to Siberia around 40,000 BC. Needless to say, roofing materials have come a long way since 40,000 BC, however, a roof can only be as good as the materials that are available. In fact, a lot can be learned about a civilization by studying its building materials. Shelters were once made from materials only found within the surroundings, hence, the advent of the sod roof. To apply a sod roof, patches of earth and grass were laid on top of the home. The thatching process, popular around 735 AD, was a slightly more advanced technique. Grass and reeds were woven together to form a more solid covering. Unfortunately, thatch coverings were not especially weather proof and could become an extreme fire hazard.
Clay tiles were first used in China around 10,000 BC. Clay tiles were a material thought to be fireproof and weather resistant. It took a great deal of time, but the use of clay tiles eventually spread to Egypt, Greece and Rome. They became the main source of roofing material by 1212 AD, when King John of England issued a building law that would eliminate flammable roofing, namely thatch roofing. It was during this time in history that the mass production of roofing materials is believed to have started.
Evidence of roofing slates have been found among the ruins of mid-17th century Jamestown. Slate was popular for its durability, fireproof qualities, and its aesthetic beauty. Slate was available in many colors such as red, green, purple, and blue-gray, so it was a great material for the decorative patterns on many 19th century roofs. However, the cost of slate was very high and the time required to obtain the slate was very lengthy as it was imported from Wales. Slate was used well into the 20th century, especially on many Tudor revival style buildings of the 1920s.
Composite Roofing, Roll Roofing, Asphalt Shingles
The first composite roofing material was a material that consisted of a woven fabric covered in tar and sand, which was seen in London in the 1840s. This eventually led to the invention of roll roofing, which was a felt dipped in tar and covered with fine gravel. Roll roofing was the first true composition roofing, created by the S.M and C.M Warren Company, and later lead to the development of asphalt shingles. The first asphalt shingle was developed by Henry M. Reynolds, but it was F.C Overby who, in 1914, added a crushed slate to the shingles to give them the weight needed to withstand the elements. The most popular roofing material today is the standard three-tab asphalt shingle. It’s one of the least-expensive roofing options and is available in a wide selection of colors.
Another roofing material that developed alongside the asphalt shingle was metal. Lead and copper were used to cover roof surfaces where wood, tile, or slate shingles would be more difficult because of the roof’s pitch or shape. Lead was mostly used for protective flashing. Flat-seamed copper was used on many domes and cupolas. Copper sheets were imported from England until the end of the 18th century when facilities for rolling sheet metal were developed in America. Zinc came into use in the 1820s. Although a less expensive substitute for lead, zinc’s advantages were controversial, and it was never widely used in the United States. Tin shingles were commonly embossed to imitate wood or tile and were popular as an inexpensive, textured roofing material. Tin roofing was widely used in Canada in the 18th century, but it was not as common in the United States until later. Sheet iron was first manufactured by Robert Morris, who had a rolling mill near Trenton, New Jersey. Morris even used metal on the roof of his own home in Philadelphia in 1794. By the 1850s the material was used on post offices, train depots and factories. In 1857 a metal roof was installed on the U.S. Mint in New Orleans. The Mint was said to be fireproofed with a 20-gauge galvanized, corrugated iron roof on iron trusses. With the growing concerns about environmental waste, metal roofing has become even more efficient, and the best part is that it can be recycled, reused or re-purposed.
Wood shingles have been popular in all periods of building history. The size, shape and amount of detail in the shingle differed according to the geographical area. Inhabitants and builders within particular regions developed certain preferences for the local species of wood. In New England and the Delaware Valley, white pine was often used: in the South, cypress and oak; in the far west, red cedar or redwood. Commonly in urban areas, wooden roofs were replaced with more fire resistant materials, but in rural areas this was not a major concern.
As materials used for roofing have changed and evolved over time, so have the tools. For centuries roofing tools were very primitive, including a simple hammer and a pile of nails. Today, roofing is its own specialized industry with its own specialized set of tools. Of course, hammersand nails are still used today to shingle a standard roof, but the selection of specialized hammers has vastly broadened. The use of pneumatic nailers is especially popular among professional roofers and the do-it-yourselfers alike because of the ability to nail rapidly. Proper removal equipment is essential for tearing off the old shingles quickly and efficiently and safety equipment such as harnesses and protective glasses are a must. There have been numerous roofing materials used throughout history, and it is certain that there will be many more to add to the list as building practices continue to evolve. As long as people are in need of homes they will be in need of roofs. With the growing energy costs, roofing materials will continue to become even more efficient, cost effective, and energy friendly.