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Roofing for Historic Buildings (Introduction)

The Old House Web

by Sarah M Sweetser
Architectural Historian

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A weather-tight roof is basic in the preservation of a structure, regardless of its age, size, or design. In the system that allows a building to work as a shelter, the roof sheds the rain, shades from the sun, and buffers the weather.

During some periods in the history of architecture, the roof imparts much of the architectural character. It defines the style and contributes to the building's aesthetics. The hipped roofs of Georgian architecture, the turrets of Queen Anne, the Mansard roofs, and the graceful slopes of the Shingle Style and Bungalow designs are examples of the use of roofing as a major design feature.

But no matter how decorative the patterning or how compelling the form, the roof is a highly vulnerable element of a shelter that will inevitably fail. A poor roof will permit the accelerated deterioration of historic building materials-- masonry, wood, plaster, paint--and will cause general disintegration of the basic structure.

Furthermore, there is an urgency involved in repairing a leaky roof since such repair costs will quickly become prohibitive. Although such action is desirable as soon as a failure is discovered, temporary patching methods should be carefully chosen to prevent inadvertent damage to sound or historic roofing materials and related features. Before any repair work is performed, the historic value of the materials used on the roof should be understood.

Then a complete internal and external inspection of the roof should be planned to determine all the causes of failure and to identify the alternatives for repair or replacement of the roofing.

Editor's Note: This series of stories on
"Roofing for Historic Buildings" is excerpted from a booklet of the same name prepared by the National Park Service as part of its Preservation Briefs series.


This Preservation Brief was written by Sarah M Sweetser, Architectural Historian, Technical Preservation Services Division. Much of the technical information was based upon an unpublished report prepared under contract for this office by John G. and Diana S. Waite. Some of the historical information was from Charles E. Peterson, FAIA, "American Notes," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. The illustrations for this brief not specifically credited are from the files of the Technical Preservation Services Division. -- Washington, D.C. February, 1978

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