Techniques > Briefs > Roofing for Historic Buildings > Locating the Problem

Architectural Character ( roof section)

• shingles are split with the grain perpendicular to the surface
• corrosion, galvanic series
• fasteners
Check list of what to look for when materials fail.
reference John Ashurst English Heritage Book on Metals

• Examples
• Case Studies

Failures of Surface Materials

When trouble occurs, 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.

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 wel lpainted 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 ironbased 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.