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Planning to Repair a Historic Home’s Existing Roof

If you own a historic home, your roof does more than just shelter you from the elements — it also imparts much of your home’s architectural character. Choosing the wrong roofing material, therefore, can ruin your home’s historical charm. Read our guide to learn what a historic roof restoration entails and how to pick the most appropriate roofing material for your historic home.

As a roof is integral to a historic home’s character, it must be repaired by a professional familiar with the necessary materials and techniques. The steps involved in a historic home roofing project are as follows:

1. Search for a Roofer   

There are few roofers in any given area with the qualifications to preserve historic roofs. Look around for contractors or artisans and ask them about their experience with historic roof preservation and your roofing material in particular. Even if they have experience with historic roofs, they may have never worked with your material. Metal, tile, slate and wood weather in different ways and require different types of support and replacement methods. If the contractor has experience with your roofing material, request photos of their past projects. Obtaining references for the contractor should also help you make a decision.

2. Assessment 

An assessment will determine the extent of the work that needs to be done, including where water is intruding and whether there are any underlying issues that must be repaired before replacing the roofing materials. Assessments often require a contractor to take off some of the old roofing, inspect the attic and determine what’s going on under the surface. This inspection must also be performed by a professional to make sure that the roof doesn’t sustain any more damage. As historic roofing materials tend to be delicate, inspectors cannot just walk on them — they must use appropriate scaffolding.

3. Research 

After the assessment, the contractor must do some research on the roof, often with the help of architects and historians. This research may include viewing house plans, building specifications, photos, articles and files from previous owners. If you have any information or documents pertaining to your roof, share them with your contractor. Although roofers try to follow the original building plans as much as possible, sometimes the required tools and materials are so antiquated that they must resort to contemporary alternatives. In doing so, however, they try to stay as faithful as they can to the roof’s original design and appearance.

4. Repairs

If your team is unable to acquire the materials used for the original roof, they must locate appropriate substitutes. These substitutes should look identical to the original materials, and they should also be compatible with the other materials on your roof and not cause them to corrode. The best time to repair a historic roof is in mild weather.

5. Documentation

During this entire process, the roofers have an obligation to record all of their work for the benefit of generations to come. This means that the restoration process isn’t complete until all the work has been properly documented.

How to Select a Roof Based on Your Home’s Era

Despite its relatively short 240 years of history, the United States is home to a wealth of architectural styles. Knowing the architectural era of your historic home will help you decide which roofing material is most appropriate.

Saltbox (1607 – early 1700s) 

Saltbox homes are characterized by their large chimney in the center, small windows and steep roofs, the back slope of which goes down to the first story.

The majority of saltboxes were built in New England. The steep pitch of their roofs is left over from a time when thatching was common, but settlers quickly realized that wood shingles did a better job of shedding off the snow. Wood shakes and metal are some of the most popular roofing materials for saltbox-style homes.

Dutch Colonial (1615 – 1674)

Dutch Colonial homes are characterized by their gambrel roofs and curved eaves along the house’s length. This should not be confused with Dutch Colonial Revival, which emerged later during the Colonial Revival period. If you want to remain true to this era, it’s best to use wood shingles for your roofing material.

Georgian (1700 – 1780)

Georgian homes typically have a symmetrical facade, transom lights, double-hung windows, a paneled door and occasionally a pedimented crown. In the South, they tend to be built with brick, and in the North, with clapboards. Wood shingles are the most appropriate roofing material for this style.

Federal (1780 – 1820)

The Federal style was inspired by ancient Roman architecture and is characterized by a symmetrical facade, paneled doors, dentil molding and shuttered windows. This style was the first to emerge in the recently formed United States and could be found throughout the country at the time. Metal, slate and wood shingles are all materials found on Federal-style homes.

Greek Revival (1825 – 1860)

Characteristics of Greek Revival homes include pedimented gable ends, pedimented windows and full-width porches or porticos with classical columns. Enamored with the democracy they had adopted from the Greeks, Americans of the time built many structures reminiscent of Greek temples, and Greek Revival homes are a prime example. Slate tiles are considered the best roofing material for these homes.

Gothic Revival (1840 – 1880)

Gothic Revival-style homes feature roofs with steep pitches, decorated cross gables, a porch on the first floor, doors that have arched panels and arched Gothic-style windows. This style originated in England and mimics the style of Medieval houses and churches. It’s most commonly found in the countryside. The roofs of Gothic Revival homes primarily featured slate, although decorative wood shingles were also common.

Italianate (1840 – 1885)

Italianate-style homes have hip roofs and deep eaves with brackets. The windows feature intricate crowns, and the entryways have paired doors with glass in them. Like the Gothic Revival style, the Italianate style also originated in England and sought to imitate the rustic appearance of Italian countryside homes. We recommend metal roofs for Italianate homes, which are attractive and help prevent drainage issues.

Second Empire (1855 – 1885)

The Second Empire style closely resembles the Italianate but can be differentiated by its Mansard roofs and dormers. The roofs feature tin tiles or slate that form decorative patterns.

Stick Style (1860 – 1890)

The Stick Style is thought to be a transition between the Gothic Revival and Queen Anne style, which would begin around 1880. All of these three styles were influenced by Medieval half-timbered structures in England, which were characterized by their projecting gables and steep roofs. Unlike the Gothic Revival style, Stick-style homes feature decorations on the surface of the wall itself instead of just around the cornices, doors and windows. Wood shingles and slate are the roofing materials of choice for this style of house.

Queen Anne (1880 – 1910)

Queen Anne homes, also known as Victorian homes, are asymmetrical and feature roof lines that intersect, bay windows and turrets, a porch on the first floor, decorative trim and patterned shingles. This home style was the first to emerge as a result of the Industrial Age. Slate is the most attractive roofing material for a Victorian-era roof.

Shingle (1880 – 1990)

As the name suggests, Shingle-style homes feature wood shingles — and not just on the roof, but on the exterior walls as well. Shingle homes also tend to be asymmetrical and are often built into the hills and rocks of the New England shoreline.

Colonial Revival (1880 – 1955)

The Colonial Revival period began shortly after the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, which historians believe renewed Americans’ interest in their architectural past. Colonial Revival homes tend to feature hipped, gambrel or gable roofs. As this style is imitating Colonial-era architecture, wood shingles are the most appropriate roofing material.

Richardson Romanesque (1880 – 1900)

Richardson Romanesque-style homes are characterized by their brick or stone exterior, asymmetrical shape and Syrian or Roman towers and arches. The best roof material for a Richardson Romanesque home depends on the roof style — slate works best for hipped roofs and Mansard roofs, and wood shingles are most suitable for gable roofs.

Folk Victorian (1870 – 1910)

Folk Victorian homes are simple house forms that feature intricate bargeboards, trim and spindle work. Thanks to the Industrial Age, elaborate decorative trim became affordable to average Americans, allowing them to decorate their simple cottages with these fancy mass-produced items. Wood shakes or shingles are the most attractive roofing materials for this style of house.

Neoclassical (1895 – 1950)

Neoclassical-style homes feature a symmetrical facade, porches with large columns, Composite or Corinthian capitals and massive pediments. This style closely resembles the Colonial Revival style, as it takes inspiration from an era when classical forms were dominant. If the roof is a side gable, wood shingles or shakes work best, and if it’s a hipped roof, slate is recommended.

Choosing a New Roof for a Historic Home

Ideally, the material you select for your historic roof should be not just historically accurate but also safe and reliable. Below we’ll discuss the most commonly used for historic roofs.

1. Wood Shingles

America’s oldest natural roofing material, wood shingles are still widely used today and are most typically sawn smooth or cut and dressed. It should be noted that rustic split shakes, despite their appearance, are a recent phenomenon and should not be used on historic homes. Traditionally, wood shingles were commonly made of cedar, oak and pine, with cedar being the most popular option today. They look great on a variety of home styles and have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years.

  • Advantages: Wood shingles are a natural, rustic-looking product that goes well with many types of historic homes.
  • Disadvantages: Fire codes in certain places may not allow them. In wetter climates, they can also split, rot and attract mold.

2. Slate

Slate in the United States dates back to the 1700s, when it had to be imported, most often from Wales. Following the end of the Civil War, Americans began to get their slate from quarries, which varied widely in quality and durability. Slate is still a popular option for homes today and pairs well with European, French chateau and Colonial homes. Although slate can be can pricey, considering it can last over 100 years, it is cost-effective over its lifespan. On Victorian homes, slates of varying colors and shapes were used to form beautiful, intricate patterns. While these colors and shapes are still used today, synthetic slate is the more popular option, which is lighter, more affordable than the authentic stone, although less durable.

  • Advantages: Slate is known to be exceptionally durable and resistant to fire. It’s also a sustainable material, and you can recycle it.
  • Disadvantages: Slate is heavy and requires professional installation and additional framing. It can also be expensive and imported slate may vary in quality. 

3. Metal

Metal roofs pair well with cabins, cottages and bungalow-style homes and have a lifespan of 40 to 75 years.

One of the most historically popular metals for roofs is copper, with copper rolls and sheets being used in the late 1700s. Like slate, copper roofs are expensive but last over 100 years. They are most commonly found on monumental buildings, churches and mansions. Sheet-metal roofs, which are often incorrectly called “tin” roofs, were common on simple homes in the 1800s and have recently become popular again. In the early 1900s, tin shingles often featured stamped patterns, which are still used now.

Sheet-metal roofing first emerged during the Federal era and was the first type of roofing produced by factories. Originally it was manufactured in tiny sheets, and two or four edges were crimped closed. Over time, they started to be produced in longer and longer rolls and evolved into the seamed roofing that is popular today.

Later metal roofing materials began to include aluminum and zinc and tin alloys. These days, sometimes even stainless steel is used. Metals roofs are now available in a wide array of colors, including dark red and dark green. If you opt for a metal roof, we recommend that you make sure it’s properly ventilated.

  • Advantages: Metal roofs are highly durable, last longer than wood or asphalt and are great at reflecting the sun.
  • Disadvantages: Certain types of metal roofs, such as copper, can be expensive.

4. Clay Tiles

Clay tiles are typically made from terra cotta, an ancient invention that was widely used in the 1700s in parts of the United States with Spanish influence. They are a definitive characteristic of the Mission and Spanish Colonial styles, which gained popularity in the 20th century. Germanic settlers also used tiles in the 1700s from North Carolina to New York. In the colonies of Spain, these tiles were often round or s-shaped. Tiles are becoming increasingly popular today, and their fireproof qualities make them a good choice for areas that experience wildfires.

  • Advantages: Clay tiles have a lifespan of 40 to 50 years and are non-combustible.
  • Disadvantages: They’re heavy and may require additional framing.

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