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Historic Roofs: Repair or Replace?

By The Old House Web

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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.

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