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Bottom-Up, Bottom-Line Approach to Top of House
by Marshall Glickman
Let's face it, roofs are not terribly exciting. They just sit there after all. They have no moving parts. They are usually a bland or dark color. And they're actually at their best when we don't notice them. For if your roof is grabbing your attention, it probably means you have a leak. Then, you realize no building component is more important or works harder.
Not only must a roof endure a pounding from the elements, it has to do so flawlessly--or look out below. Just a few hours of dripping can spoil Sheetrock and fine detailing. And should that dribble remain unnoticed, structural damage is eventually inevitable. Keep this vital role in mind when evaluating what kind of roof to put over your head. For you don't want to scrimp on your home's protective shield.
Traditionally, when selecting a new roof one considers three things--cost, durability, and aesthetics. But just as three walls aren't sufficient support for a roof, there should also be a fourth selection-bearing consideration: environmental impact. Usually, we assume durability, aesthetics, and environmental considerations clash with cost; that is, if we want something handsome and long-lasting, we figure it's likely to harm our wallet and the environment too (since rot-resistant materials are often highly toxic). But when we take a long range view, these tradeoffs usually disappear and we can happily satisfy all four considerations. As it turns out, holding to maintaining an environmental awareness helps guide us to wise building choices, pointing us toward an enlightened self-interest where what best for the environment is also best for us.
Of course in the short run, cheap materials do cost less. But if we follow this tactic, we end up with an obvious problem: a cheap roof. The inexpensive so-called "twenty-year roof" often needs work or replacement in a third or half that time. This explains why the National Roofing Contractors Association estimates that 78 percent of the money spent on roofing in the U.S. is for redoing roofsBa cost, hassle, and environmental insult that could be avoided.
The Eco Criteria
To evaluate the environmental friendliness of a roofing material, remember the "three R's" -- reduce, reuse, and recycle. And remember that they roll off the tongue in order of importance. Reducing or eliminating materials leads off since "reducings" offer the possibility of totally avoiding pollution. If we don't need to make something in the first place, then the damage which usually accompanies manufacturing is gone. This is why using long-lasting, element-resistant roofing materials is so important. Every roof replacement means more mining, manufacturing, spilling, and shipping.
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Of course, no matter how durable a material is, it's initial creation still has an impact on the earth (and, of course, ultimately on our health). The issue then, is how much impact? How many toxic chemicals or how much energy is needed to manufacture a product and ship it? Are the raw materials used to make it endangered or ecologically expensive? Are any recycled materials used in the manufacturing process? And once the material is shot, can it then be recycled or benignly disposed of? Last, is it possible for the product to serve more than one environmentally positive function? For instance, there are now solar shingles, which both protect your home and generate electricity.
What About Asphalt?
Unfortunately, asphalt shingles, which are the most popular roofing material in the U.S., fare the worst on an environmental scorecard. Asphalt is petroleum based and energy-intensive to produce. And once the shingles are worn out, there's no good way to dispose of them. According to the National Association of Home Builders, asphalt roofs account for an estimated 1.36 billion pounds of waste in landfills every year. It's true, you can shingle over an asphalt roof, but only once. Eventually, you have to toss the whole slow-to-decompose mess out (except if you live in New Jersey or Tampa, Florida, where ReClaim, Inc. recycles asphalt shingles into pavement patching materials).
If your builder insists on using asphalt, at least go with a longer-warrantied variety shingle that has an organic felt backing (these tend to be stronger and include some recycled materials). As already noted, stay away from the least-expensive "twenty-year" asphalt mats. The roofing business is very competitive and commodity-price driven. Responding to this pressure, manufacturers haven't raised the prices of their low-end asphalt shingles since the early 80's. Yet obviously their costs have risen over this time, so quality has been sacrificed. Research by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) bears this out: none of the 20-year three-tab fiberglass shingles they tested and none of the 25-year laminated fiberglass shingles met ASTM standards for tear strength. There are, however, long-lasting, laminated asphalt shingles. Some of these simulate wood or slate shingles and come with forty year warranties. At least when these sturdier shingles need replacing, maybe Reclaim's recycling technology will have spread throughout the country.
So if asphalt is out, or at least less desirable, what's left? The most appealing option, if you can afford it and your house is structurally able to accommodate the extra weight, is slate. Slate sounds so old-fashioned that it's hard to think of it as a solution to environmental problems. But slate has lots going for it. For starters, slate roofs last and last--for as long as a couple centuries. Broken slates can be easily replaced and disposal isn't a problem. There's an active market for used slates, including for shingles more than a hundred years old. And those tiles which are too chipped to reuse on a roof, can be used for landscaping.
One eco-demerit for slate is that it is heavy, requiring a lot of fuel to transport. But slate is a fairly common rock and most of the slate quarries in the country are in the Northeast. And producing slate products is relatively benign. Slate shingles are "harvested" from open quarries by splitting the deposit to requested thickness, cutting it to size, and drilling holes for nailing. Another eco-advantage of slate is that it is naturally fire-resistant; unlike asphalt, if a home catches fire, it's burning won't create toxic fumes.
The most environmentally appealing of the slate look-a-like shingles are made from recycled rubber or plastic. From the ground, these light-weight composites, which are known in the trade as "recycled synthetics," look like traditional shingles, but in their former life they were a car hose, tire, or shoe. There is also a recycled wood and plastic shingle made by Re-New Wood, Inc. which looks like a cedar shake -- an irony which highlights the importance of environmental forethought.
In theory, cedar shingles should hardly require imitation. Although using recycled materials is almost always a plus, a case could be made for cedar being ecofriendly. After all, it comes from a natural, renewable resource requiring relatively little manufacturing. But, alas, the best weather-resistant cedars come from endangered old-growth species. According to John Abrams, a veteran eco-savvy builder quoted in Environmental Building News, "second-growth cedar roofing shingles or shakes have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, compared to the expected 40- to 50-year life of synthetic rubber or plastic shingles."
Since slate and recycled composite alternatives are more expensive than asphalt, for those on a tighter budget, it's good to know that metal roofs are also softer on the environment than asphalt. There are copper roofs in Europe which have lasted for 400-500 years. While a good quality steel and aluminum-coated roof is unlikely to endure nearly a quarter that long, a well-crafted standing-seam roof should last for a lifetime.
Steel is energy-intensive to produce, of course, but metal sheets are light to haul and when a metal roof needs replacing, it can easily be recycled (one company, Classic Products Inc, actually makes aluminum roofing products from recycled metal). Metal roofs also have the advantages shedding snow easily and can be used with a catchment system to collect rainwater.
Think of a roof as an investment, both in the environment, which feels the runoff of any short-sighted choices, and also in the value to your home. Even if you plan to sell your house in a few years and can't fully enjoy decades of maintenance-free compensation, a good roof will still pay off when it's time to sell.
One of the first things any prospective buyer or home inspector looks at is the condition of the roof. If it's in lousy shape, they'll naturally cringe a bit -- even if you agree to take money off your asking price. It's like interviewing a job applicant with a big stain on their suit. Even if the candidate otherwise seems like a great guy or gal, you can't help but wonder if they're that oblivious, how careless are they in other ways? So while we may only subtly notice a good quality roof, it still puts us at ease. After all, what can bring more peace of mind than knowing we're well-protected from above.
As you may know, Marshall Glickman was the editor and publisher of Green Living from 1992 until 2005, and is the author of The Mindful Money Guide: Creating Harmony Between Your Values and Your Finances (Wellspring/Ballantine Books).
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