Search for Great Deals on Roofing
What are you looking for? (check all that apply) What is your Zip Code?

Assessing problems with older roofs

By The Old House Web

Previous Page * Next Page

When trouble occurs with an historic roof, it is important to contact a professional, either an architect, a reputable roofing contractor, or a craftsman familiar with the inherent characteristics of the particular historic roofing system involved.

These professionals may be able to advise on immediate patching procedures and help plan more permanent repairs. A thorough examination of the roof should start with an appraisal of the existing condition and quality of the roofing material itself. Particular attention should be given to any southern slope because year-round exposure to direct sun may cause it to break down first.


Some historic roofing materials have limited life expectancies because of normal organic decay and "wear." For example, the flat surfaces of wood shingles erode from exposure to rain and ultraviolet rays. Some species are more hardy than others, and heartwood, for example, is stronger and more durable than sapwood.

Ideally, shingles are split with the grain perpendicular to the surface. This is because if shingles are sawn across the grain, moisture may enter the grain and cause the wood to deteriorate. Prolonged moisture on or in the wood allows moss or fungi to grow, which will further hold the moisture and cause rot.


Of the inorganic roofing materials used on historic buildings, the most common are perhaps the sheet metals: lead, copper, zinc, tin plate, terne plate, and galvanized iron. In varying degrees each of these sheet metals are likely to deteriorate from chemical action by pitting or streaking. This can be caused by airborne pollutants; acid rainwater; acids from lichen or moss; alkalis found in lime mortars or portland cement, which might be on adjoining features and washes down on the roof surface; or tannic acids from adjacent wood sheathings or shingles made of red cedar or oak.

temporary roof
Temporary stabilization or "mothballing" with materials, such as plywood and building paper, can protect the roof of a project until it can be properly repaired or replaced. Photo: NPS files.

Corrosion from "galvanic action" occurs when dissimilar metals, such as copper and iron, are used in direct contact. Corrosion may also occur even though the metals are physically separated; one of the metals will react chemically against the other in the presence of an electrolyte such as rainwater. In roofing, this situation might occur when either a copper roof is decorated with iron cresting, or when steel nails are used in copper sheets. In some instances the corrosion can be prevented by inserting a plastic insulator between the dissimilar materials. Ideally, the fasteners should be a metal sympathetic to those involved.

Iron rusts unless it is well-painted or plated. Historically this problem was avoided by use of tin plating or galvanizing. But this method is durable only as long as the coating remains intact. Once the plating is worn or damaged, the exposed iron will rust. Therefore, any iron-based roofing material needs to be undercoated, and its surface needs to be kept well-painted to prevent corrosion.

One cause of sheet metal deterioration is fatigue. Depending upon the size and the gauge of the metal sheets, wear and metal failure can occur at the joints or at any protrusions in the sheathing as a result from the metal's alternating movement to thermal changes. Lead will tear because of "creep," or the gravitational stress that causes the material to move down the roof slope.


Perhaps the most durable roofing materials are slate and tile. Seemingly indestructible, both vary in quality. Some slates are hard and tough without being brittle. Soft slates are more subject to erosion and to attack by airborne and rainwater chemicals, which cause the slates to wear at nail holes, to delaminate, or to break. In winter, slate is very susceptible to breakage by ice, or ice dams.


Tiles will weather well, but tend to crack or break if hit, as by tree branches, or if they are walked on improperly. Like slates, tiles cannot support much weight. Low quality tiles that have been insufficiently fired during manufacture, will craze and spall under the effects of freeze and thaw cycles on their porous surfaces.

Failures of support systems

Once the condition of the roofing material has been determined, the related features and support systems should be examined on the exterior and on the interior of the roof.

The gutters and downspouts need periodic cleaning and maintenance since a variety of debris fill them, causing water to back up and seep under roofing units. Water will eventually cause fasteners, sheathing, and roofing structure to deteriorate. During winter, the daily freeze-thaw cycles can cause ice floes to develop under the roof surface. The pressure from these ice floes will dislodge the roofing material, especially slates, shingles, or tiles. Moreover, the buildup of ice dams above the gutters can trap enough moisture to rot the sheathing or the structural members.

Many large public buildings have built-in gutters set within the perimeter of the roof. The downspouts for these gutters may run within the walls of the building, or drainage may be through the roof surface or through a parapet to exterior downspouts. These systems can be effective if properly maintained; however, if the roof slope is inadequate for good runoff, or if the traps are allowed to clog, rainwater will form pools on the roof surface. Interior downspouts can collect debris and thus back up, perhaps leaking water into the surrounding walls. Exterior downspouts may fill with water, which in cold weather may freeze and crack the pipes. Conduits from the built-in gutter to the exterior downspout may also leak water into the surrounding roof structure or walls.

Because of the roof's visibility, the slate detailing around the dormers is important to the character of this structure. Photo: NPS files.

Failure of the flashing system is usually a major cause of roof deterioration. Flashing should be carefully inspected for failure caused by either poor workmanship, thermal stress, or metal deterioration (both of flashing material itself and of the fasteners). With many roofing materials, the replacement of flashing on an existing roof is a major operation, which may require taking up large sections of the roof surface. Therefore, the installation of top quality flashing material on a new or replaced roof should be a primary consideration. Remember, some roofing and flashing materials are not compatible.

Roof fasteners and clips should also be made of a material compatible with all other materials used, or coated to prevent rust. For example, the tannic acid in oak will corrode iron nails. Some roofs such as slate and sheet metals may fail if nailed too rigidly.

If the roof structure appears sound and nothing indicates recent movement, the area to be examined most closely is the roof substrate--the sheathing or the battens. The danger spots would be near the roof plates, under any exterior patches, at the intersections of the roof planes, or at vertical surfaces such as dormers. Water penetration, indicating a breach in the roofing surface or flashing, should be readily apparent, usually as a damp spot or stain. Probing with a small pen knife may reveal any rot which may indicate previously undetected damage to the roofing membrane. Insect infestation evident by small exit holes and frass (a sawdustlike debris) should also be noted. Condensation on the underside of the roofing is undesirable and indicates improper ventilation. Moisture will have an adverse effect on any roofing material; a good roof stays dry inside and out.

Previous Page * Next Page

Search Improvement Project