By Chris Ettel
Designing a roof is like most everything else in life: there are pros and cons to virtually every decision. While most homeowners are not apt to change the design of their roofs unless they are modifying their existing home with a second floor, converting an attic, raising their ceilings, or adding a covered porch, replacing a roof is a home maintenance necessity. Though perhaps not the sexiest design decision, roofs are workhorses performing functions related to shelter, durability, weather-proofing, and energy-efficiency. And getting it right—however you define right—is critically important to the overall look of your home be it cottagey, colonial, or contemporary chic. But there is also your wallet to consider: material, installation, and maintenance costs on the debit side and property value on the credit side.
Let’s start with some of the materials available for roofing. For many people, there are two choices: asphalt shingles or the increasingly popular standing seam metal. The former (strip, architectural, or luxury, in ascending cost)—generally with 20-30 year warranties—are good selections if heat-absorption, flexing, and relatively low cost are your primary considerations, along with ease of replacing individual shingles.
Fully fireproof, longer-lived than asphalt, and recyclable, standing seam metal roofs are handsome, but require specialized installation skills. While “standing seam” has become a household term, it is not the only heat-reflecting metal game in town. With advantages and costs similar to standing seam roofs, metal shingles or shakes are the chameleons of the roofing world, as these stamped and finished shingles can take on the look of asphalt shingles, wooden shakes, or even slate or clay tiles. There is also copper roofing and corrugated steel to consider.
Speaking of shakes or shingles, the wooden versions of these are beautifully warm and organic. Pricier than asphalt, they have much greater longevity if installed in a dry climate and properly maintained. The are ill-advised for locales prone to excessive moisture or wildfires.
Glazed or unglazed ceramic tile is an excellent choice for salty air in hot climates, hence its popularity in southern, coastal regions. It is expensive but, as we know from century old villas, it has an impressive lifespan. The same is true of slate roofs. Gorgeous, pricey, and requiring highly skilled installers: these roofs will outlive their homeowners.
If your home—or budget—is unable to support the weight of true slate, rubber slate tile is an option that looks surprisingly convincing from ground level. Inexpensive and with warranties up to 50 years, it is an option worth considering.
For the eco-minded wanting to make an environmental statement, green roofs are the most unorthodox in this list of roofing materials, requiring specialized installation knowledge and maintenance. But the payoff is in pollutant removal from the air, thermal insulation, and a unique brand of beauty.
Modern and contemporary flattop or low-pitch residential roofs are generally sheathed with either membrane roofing. Low cost and long-lived, membrane involves seaming large sheets of one of a number of materials: neoprene, EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer), chlorinated and chlorosulfonated polyethylene, and polymer-modified bitumens. A friend who recently designed and had built a hybrid mid-century/industrial-modern home in the Outer Banks chose membrane for her low-pitch shed roof. But to avoid noticeable seams over her front porch, whose roof is more visible from the street, she chose standing seam metal for that area only.
We recommend doing some of your own research, as the list of roofing materials continues with the likes of concrete and bamboo and endless combinations. Plus, you will want to consider a wide variety of finishing touches such as cornices—horizontal decorative molding—and roof ridge caps which range from barely noticeable to subtle-yet-striking to highly decorative.
Once a material is selected, choosing a color for your roof is the next consideration and it can be tricky. If you want your home to appear larger, generally a lighter color will do the trick. However, if you want to direct attention to other aspects of your home or property, a darker color might be in order. Keep in mind, though, that the darkest colors create considerable visual weight and can seem to “bear down” on a home. In terms of utility bills, the light and heat-reflecting and absorbing properties of colors is a consideration: which is more important to you in which season?
Generally speaking, you will likely want the color temperature—cool or warm—of your home’s exterior and roof to be the same, e.g. a gray roof on a blue home or a tan roof on a brown home. But there are always exceptions and sometimes those are the most exciting, say a charcoal gray roof on a redbrick home. We advise looking at lots of homes in appealing neighborhoods as well as online because, if you misstep, you have made an expensive mistake that you will have to live with for a long time. With an estimated average of 40% of your home’s visible exterior devoted to the roof, depending on the style, it is worth taking the time to make a very calculated decision.
Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate, Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Coastal Virginia Building Industry Association board of directors and is past chairman of the CVBIA Remodeler’s Council.