More home builders and renovators are saying no to asphalt-shingle roofs, heralding a revival of interest in slate, clay tile, wood shake and other historically popular materials that are considered both aesthetically pleasing and less harmful to the environment.
But most of these options are impractical. Slate and clay tile are heavy and may require structural reinforcement. Wood isn't durable and offers limited fire resistance. And next to mass-produced asphalt shingles, all of them cost a small fortune, even on a moderate-size home.
There is one asphalt alternative whose resurgence is on a fast track -- metal. Most often associated with quaint New England tool sheds and not-so-quaint outlets of the International House of Pancakes, metal roofs are increasingly appearing on new homes and renovations because of their style and relative affordability.
"There's a tremendous appetite for traditional, high-quality materials well applied. Metal roofs fall into that category," says Dale Overmyer, a Washington, D.C., architect and principal of Dale Owen Overmyer. He most often uses metal roofs on residential projects in historic Georgetown.
Architectural metal roofs in new-home construction reached a projected 30 percent of the market in 2007, up from 23 percent in 2004, according to the National Roofing Contractors Association's latest member survey. Meanwhile, fiberglass-asphalt shingles were used in a projected 44 percent of new residential projects in 2007, down from 50 percent in 2004. Slate roofs slipped slightly in that period to a projected 5.1 percent of new homes, while clay-tile roofs grew slightly to a projected 4.6 percent, and wood shakes slipped to a projected 2.1 percent.
Metal roofs are regarded as more fireproof than wood shakes and traditional asphalt shingles, and they last as much as twice as long, contractors say. They can withstand high winds. And when treated with coatings and finishes, they reflect heat, helping keep the house cool and utility bills down in hot climates.
Barb and Edward Nilson couldn't agree on the roof for the house they built 20 years ago in the Seattle suburb of Renton. Edward Nilson wanted metal because it would last; Barb Nilson said it looked too "tinny." They settled on asphalt for the main house and cedar shakes for the guest house. But when it came time to replace the roofs last year, Barb Nilson was all for metal. "The new ones look wonderful," she says. "They're more finished." The couple spent $50,000 for the two roofs that they believe will last 50 years.
In an era when custom-built countertops, cabinetry and woodwork are routine, more homeowners want their roof to make a statement too. "It used to be that a roof was a roof was a roof. People didn't care," says Diane Gola, marketing manager for GAF Materials Corp., which makes asphalt roofing and recently expanded into slate.
Materials used on neighboring houses often influence a homeowner's roofing decision. Many developments restrict the use of materials, and in California, some counties disallow wood-shake roofs to contain the potential spread of wildfires. And then there's social pressure. "If you're in a suburb where everyone else has an asphalt roof, you'd look silly with metal," says Jim Haughey, chief economist for Reed Construction Data, of Atlanta.
Metal roofs have other drawbacks. They are slippery, so snow slides off -- but so do people who might venture onto a wet roof to clear off debris. (The Nilsons had trouble finding someone to clean the leaves and pine needles off theirs.) Rain and hail sound louder. Metal roofs still tend to cost about twice as much as even the most expensive fiberglass-asphalt shingles, with prices varying by metal type -- steel, aluminum, copper or a combination. Still, asphalt roofing prices are rising, too, along with prices of petroleum, from which the roofing is made.