roofs are defining features on many old houses. A little background can
help keep yours looking good as new.
Spanish-style barrel roofs
Tile is one of the most decorative forms of
offering endless ornamental possibilities, thanks to the variety of
available shapes, colors, patterns, and textures. Tile is also among
roofing's most durable materials - it doesn't burn or rot, deteriorate from
salt spray in coastal areas, or heat in the desert, and rodents and bugs
don't chew on it. Is it any wonder, then, that clay tile roofs can last
anywhere from 50 to several hundred years?
The two biggest enemies of tile roofs are falling tree branches and
humans. Why humans? Because people are the culprits behind bad tile
installations and faulty maintenance; they also often don't know how to
properly walk across tile roofs without breaking them. The main downside
of tile roofing, in fact, is its steep upfront costs. But, when spread out
over a roof's long lifespan, tile is actually economical.
Tile Through Time
Clay tiles have deep historical roots. In China, tiles dating back to
10,000 B.C. have been found, and they appeared in the Middle East a short
time later. Tile roofing traditions arrived to the U.S. through European
settlersÃ¢â‚¬â€via the Dutch on the East Coast around 1650 and through Spanish
missionaries on the West Coast in the 1700s. Clay tiles were molded by
hand until about 1870, when they began being manufactured by machine
Historically, clay-roofing tiles were categorized by their general shapes.
The two basic tile types are rounded pan tiles and flat tiles. Pan tiles
include the familiar barrel (or Mission) tiles, and Spanish tiles; they
also encompass designs where two flat tile pieces are overlapped by a
single curved tile, like Roman and Greek varieties. Flat tiles are
referred to as slab, shingle, book, or French. Both pan and flat tiles can
overlap or interlock when applied, depending on how they are designed.
Interlocking tiles have an extrusion or lip on one tile that hooks over an
edge or channel on an adjacent tile. Overlapping tiles, if flat, are
applied with staggered joints in overlapping courses like shingles or
slates. With pan tiles, the convex "cap" tiles overlap the concave "pan"
or "trough" tiles on both sides. S-tiles, often called Spanish, combine
the pan and cap into a single tile. Specialty tiles are required for ridge
caps, starter tiles (sometimes called bird stops), and odd spaces at roof
hips, rakes, or dormers. These can be highly decorative. Some roof shapes,
particularly conical towers or turrets, require tiles in graduated sizes.
A Natural Palette
Unglazed clay tiles range in color from terra cotta to buff, brown, even
pale pink. Tiles were sometimes treated with a manganese solution before
firing to produce a black, brown, or bluish scorch mark on the surface.
They also can be colored using slip (thin, runny clay). But the most
expensive way to color roof tile is with glazes. As with indoor tiles,
almost any color is possible, though historically, color preferences
leaned toward greens, blues, and occasionally purples.
Concrete roof tiles are a much later invention. They became available in
the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, but concrete roofing didn't
become widely used until decades later. Concrete tiles were molded by hand
until the 1920s, but now they are extruded. The one exception is the
Hendricks Tile Company of Richmond, Virginia, which still makes concrete
tiles by hand.
Initially, concrete tiles were colored with iron oxides to imitate the red
of terra cotta tile, the brown of wood shakes, or the grays and greens of
slate, and earth tones remain the most popular colors. Concrete tiles were
often used in the early to mid-20th century as more durable alternatives
to wood, and more cost-effective alternatives to slate roofs.
Tile roofs, though found on just about every style of building, are
commonly associated with architectural approaches rooted in Spain, like
Mission, Adobe, and Pueblo Revival. But tile roofing options extend far
beyond Spanish influence. Tiles resembling slate are often seen on Period
Revival homes like Tudors or Normandy cottages. Some bungalows and
Craftsman-style houses employed tile roofs, particularly the iconic
Chicago bungalows. A few famous homes feature gorgeous tiled roofs, such
as Gustav Stickley's home at Craftsman Farms and numerous Frank Lloyd
Wright-designed houses. Handmade concrete shingles have been used in
restoration projects at Colonial Williamsburg, Old Salem Village in North
Carolina, and in many National Park Service projects.
Weight for It
Tile is heavy, but not as heavy as you might think. A roof strong enough
to hold three layers of asphalt shingles could probably also stand up to
the weight of tile. Clay tile generally weighs more than concrete,
anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds per square (a square equals a
10'-by-10' area). Regular concrete tile weighs from 900 to 1,200 pounds
per square, while newer lightweight concrete tile comes in at under 600
pounds per square, below the level at which many jurisdictions require a
consultation by a structural engineer. When in doubt, it's a good idea to
consult an engineer anyway.
Thereby Hangs a Tile
Up until the mid-19th century, tiles were hung on horizontal battens using
oak pegs, with no sheathing or building paper. This made it easy to find
leaks and make repairs, but meant depending entirely on the tiles to keep
water out. Eventually, tiles were nailed directly to wood sheathing, or
hung on battens nailed to the sheathing using lugs or nibs molded into the
back. Barrel tiles were often nailed to vertical battens, with cap tiles
attached with wire. Ridge and trim tiles were often mortar-set.
Modern roofing practices lay tiles on 1"-thick sheathing with (at least)
30 pound felt or built-up roofing underneath, and a minimum slope of 3 in
12 (rising 3 inches for every foot). In areas prone to hurricanes or
tornadoes, tiles must not only be nailed, but also attached to steel clips
to prevent uplift in high winds. Hips and ridges are mechanically fastened
and also adhered with polyurethane foam adhesives, which were found to
bond better than mortar. Concerns about the performance of tile roofs
during earthquakes have been allayed somewhat by a recent University of
Southern California study, which found that tile roofs installed to
uniform building code requirements withstood up to twice the forces
required by code.
Flashing in the Pan
Fastening systems often give way before the roof - iron nails can rust out,
so copper nails and wire or stainless steel screws are the recommended
fasteners. Flashings and gutters must be the best quality metal - at least
16-ounce copper or lead-coated copper - in order to be as long-lasting as
possible. Still, on a roof that's been up a hundred years or more, it's
likely that the flashings and underlayment have deteriorated, requiring
that all tiles be removed to replace them.
Installation and repair of tile roofs is a job best left to professional
roofers experienced in working with tile. A new installation is
straightforward, but repairs, re-roofing, or adding additions on existing
tile roofs may involve finding salvaged tiles to match the originals.
Given the variety of shapes and colors that have been available for the
past 300 years, it's amazing that anyone manages to find a match, but they
do. It helps that three companies - Gladding-McBean, Boston Valley Terra
Cotta, and Ludowici - are still producing clay tile in many traditional
shapes and colors, and can also re-create their vintage patterns. Finding
matches may also involve dealing with salvage tile vendors, and some
colors and profiles will be easier to find than others. Red Mission or
Spanish tiles are more common than glazed French tiles, for example.
Whatever you do, don't let a roofer talk you into replacing a tile roof
with asphalt shingles. It may be cheaper in the short run, but it will
never look right or last as long. Tile roofs are distinctive, often
dominant, features of historic buildings. Take them away, and your house
will never be the same. Having a tile roof is a lot like owning a
parrot - both are beautiful, exotic, expensive, and sometimes difficult to
deal with. And both will probably outlive you.