Roofing Materials: The Common and The Left-Of-Center

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roofer on roof in silhouette

Think of your roof as The Great Protector of your home. It shields you, your family, all your belongings and the entire house from rain, snow, hail and sun. You can install new floors, remodel the kitchen, use low-VOC finishes, and make the interior as beautiful and eco-friendly as possible. If the roof leaks, though, you have wasted your money. You also want to shield your collections of antiques, musical instruments or artwork from the elements. Count on your roof to do that.

From firsthand experience, I will say ‘Hire A Roofer!’, not a general contractor. A roof needs to be installed correctly, or, again, you are wasting your money. Not to say GCs don’t know how to put on a roof, but mine did a shabby job.

Also when you work with a roofer, you will get current information about materials. GCs might go with run-of-the-mill supplies, since the roof is one small part of the project. A roofer can tell you what’s best for the pitch of your roof, your architecture, your micro-climate, your surrounding environment, and your heating, cooling and electrical needs.

Solar shingles

Electrical, you say? Yes! Consider solar shingles to help power your house. The cost of PV has come down considerably in the last several years. The demand for shingles came about when homeowners saw bolted on panels and/or solar trackers in the yard as unsightly.

Solar shingles blend in seamlessly with traditional shingles. A conductor layer is laminated on top of a shingle, which can be laid on the roof decking or an existing shingle roof. An electrician puts the electrical connections together, and the whole system is tied to your electric meter.

Solar installers recommend 1 kilowatt of energy for every 1000 square feet of the home’s floor space. With net-metering (selling electricity back to your utility), there is a quick and high ROI. Couple that with federal, state, local and utility tax incentives, and solar shingles becomes even more attractive.


Thatch is not something you see in the US. Think old Europe and UK along with the huts of indigenous people in tropical areas. Bundles of wheat, rice or rye stalks are layered so as to shed water. This is now of interest to people wanting a green roof (not a living green roof!), because it is local, renewable, recyclable, and durable. Hemp stalks would be the perfect material for this, too!

thatch roof and backyard

A thatch roof is good for temporary housing in emergencies, too. It is quick to assemble, and uses local materials that are easy to come by. I can see how this might get trendy!


Solar shingles and thatched roofs are so interesting to me! It would be pretty cool to combine them! What a look – the natural and rough surface of hemp thatch with a large patch of sleek solar shingles in the middle of it.

If you are not feeling adventurous, here are your other options.

Asphalt shingles – This is the most common and least expensive choice for roofing. Shingles come in colors to make it more exciting, and they are durable, lasting 20-30 years.

Cedar shakes or shingles – Cedar is rot-resistant and weathers into a beautiful gray patina. It’s very expensive to install, because it needs an air space below it for circulation. That means another layer of spacers on top of the decking. They will last up to 50 years.

Clay tiles – These are common in warm climates, such as California and Florida. Cold weather may crack them. They are labor intensive to install, and the roof decking needs to be built up to carry their weight. Clay roofing is now a part of building codes where there is high fire danger (California). They last 60-80 years or more, and are a must for Mediterranean style architecture, though!

Metal – If you think corrugated, galvanized steel is just for your shed, think again! The durability and low cost of this material is bringing it back into style. Also, steel is one of the most eco-friendly building materials, because it is constantly recycled, rarely made from raw materials.

Achilles Metal Roofing - Embossed Shingles Collection

Achilles Metal Roofing – Embossed Shingles Collection, Black / 28 Gauge

Metals panels that overlap or seam together make a long-lasting, watertight roof. They reflect the sun’s heat in summer to cut your cooling bills. Lighter colors are the most effective, especially if you don’t have trees around you to provide shade.

Roofing first

If you are looking to remodel, look at your roof first, because no matter what you do inside, it can be ruined if your roof needs replacing. A roof is not very romantic, especially when you want a new bathroom or a new kitchen, but it will be the most practical investment you’ve ever made. I speak from experience.

Consider solar shingles, since they have a high payback time, and you’ll be living with the planet. Cut your bills, and save natural resources. The sun is free!

And I’ll say it again – Hire A Roofer! Get it done right, and you won’t have to think about it for decades.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.