The view from a new asphalt roof

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings, House Styles, Technology, Old House History

My 1950’s Rambler got a new roof this week.

I watched as the old asphalt shingles came down and the new shingles went up. Looking up from the ground, I was mesmerized by the process: the way the roofers tapped the nails with a casual air, lined up the next row with a practiced eye, and walked as easily on the sloped roof as they did on flat, solid ground. Every now and then, old shingles would fly from the roof like misshaped frisbees, thumping to a rest on the grass.

The house has seen more than it’s fair share of storms on the Georgia coast, and the shingles were clear evidence of that. Those once-solid and heavy pieces of roofing now crumbled around the edges. Once a rich dark color, they were bleached to a light tan by the unrelenting sun. To say it was time for a new roof is a serious understatement.

As if on cue, more severe storms arrived moments after the contractor left. Listening to the rain on my solid new roof made me think about the older houses I have lived in and the kind of roofing materials that had been on them over the years.

A brief history of roofing materials

Throughout history, roofing materials were often limited to materials that were easy to obtain in the nearby vicinity. Thatched roofs held together with mud, clay roofing tiles created from the earth and wood planks from surrounding trees were among some of the earliest options. Thatch roofs have been used from the earliest of times; clay roofing tiles were reportedly used as early as 10,000 BC. Clay tile roofs were put into widespread use by the Romans, and the evidence of their durability remains today, as some ancient homes still have at least some of their original tile.

In the 12th century, King John declared that all homes in London should replace their thatch roofs with clay tile. This was a step to prevent the spread of fire, which could leap from one roof to another and decimate a city in a matter of hours. The mass production of roofing materials had begun.

The modern composite shingle was put into use around 1840. Though other types of shingles were hitting the market, including asbestos and concrete options, the composite shingle was the material that would change the face of roofing in the United States. When the process for cutting these shingles was first perfected in 1915, mass production of roofing materials went into high gear.

In more modern times, metal roofs have become popular. In fact, the majority of homes in my neighborhood boast metal roofs in a wide variety of earthy colors. Enameled steel, galvanized metal, tin and even zinc are all options for roofing today. Those who prefer to see something more traditional on their old houses might go for slate, wood, clay tile or fiber cement.

For my house, the rich chocolate color and simple look of the asphalt shingle fits in perfectly with the easy lines and cream-colored siding. Watching it go up was a fun experience, but listening to the rain pounding on the roof — and knowing that this house is safe for at least another 30 years — is the most satisfying part.