Roofing Styles: Trends and History

Here on the West Coast, cedar roofing is very popular since it’s so well suited to our climate. But, what’s happening on the East Coast, particularly in New England? And how have things evolved into the 21st Century?

Well, New England roofer and roof enthusiast Tom Demers is here to trace the trends, and examine the history of roofing in New England, many trends of which can be applied anywhere.


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To find or build shelter was one of the first skills of humanity, and the most important component of any shelter is the roof; the part that protects the inhabitants from the elements. As humans advanced and their shelter became as much an art form as a necessity, both houses and their roofs began to change as well.

The evolution of roofing design can be traced far back as 3000 B.C., when the Chinese used clay roof tiles. Roman and Greek civilizations utilized slate and tile in the first century. By the eighth century, thatched roofs became the common form of most areas of Western Europe, and wooden shingles in the eleventh.

True advancements in the evolution of roofing came in the twelfth century during the reign of King John, when, to help prevent fires in increasingly overcrowded cities, laws were passed that commanded citizens to replace thatched roofs with clay. 600 years later, the first mass-created clay tiles began production and a century following that, concrete tile roofing first came into use.

American roofing evolved much like that of Europe. In the earliest decades of settlement, use of whatever materials were available and whatever the weather dictated decided initial roof designs. While new technologies have made it possible for almost any roofing style to be utilized anywhere in the country, New Englanders tend to cherish their traditions, and still remain loyal to the classics.

The Evolution of Roofing and Architecture in New England

The first form of New England architecture and roof style is generally called the Cape Cod, popularized in the 17th century: a simple, boxy, single story structure, designed with low ceilings and a central chimney for efficient heating. This style of roof was steeply pitched with side gables and narrow roof overhang.

The Cape Cod evolved into the Colonial category of architecture and roofing. A New England Colonial home has a sloped roof, like a shed, and is often called a Saltbox Colonial.

The Georgian style of architecture popular with the upper classes in the 18th century brought the gambrel and hipped roof designs, two of the most commonly used in homes from this period onward. A gambrel roof, also known as Dutch Gambrel, is a two-sided roof with two slopes on each side. The top has a shallower angled slope, while the lower slope is steeper.

The hipped roof has many variations depending on the design of the house. With the hipped roof, all sides slide downward to the walls with a gentle slope. A square hipped roof is shaped like a pyramid, with a pointed tip at the center, while a flat-roofed style creates two triangle sides and two trapezoidal sides. On a rectangular home, the hipped roof has all four faces at the same slope, set symmetrically against the center lines of the house.

Current Popular Roofing Materials

These classic roofing designs are still in use with new construction, but they have evolved in application, materials and purpose. Most homeowners desire roof materials and designs that are attractive, inexpensive, low-maintenance, and long-lasting, as well as environmentally friendly. Material choices vary widely, ranging from the ultra-modern to the ancient.

Sod Roofing

One hyper-green roofing material currently in vogue is sod or turf roofing, common in Scandanavian countries in the 17th century, when it was created from a base of wooden boards covered with several layers of birch bark to make the roof watertight, and finally a grass layer keep the layers of bark in place.

Modern sod methods have changed to include special layers for water dispersal and drainage, a system to protect the roof from wind, and special material to help the organic material grow. Green roofing is not only attractive, it provides excellent insulation, and is a long-lasting choice if properly installed.

Metal Roofing

Metal roofs are returning to common usage. Modern metal can be made to look like almost any traditional roofing material. Metal roofs are durable, fire resistant and require almost no upkeep. They also offer energy efficiency, as metal prevents the sun’s heat from penetrating the roof and heating the attic.

Steel roofs are also environmentally friendly, built from post-consumer recycled materials, and are lightweight, making it possible to install over an existing roof, preventing the need to throw the old roof away. While initial install may be expensive, it is worth computing the savings over time.

Slate Roofing

Slate tile has always been a fashion with the upper classes in New England. It remains an expensive option, but it does provide benefits besides the aesthetic that may make the cost worthwhile. It has a natural look with a wide variety of patterns available, a long lifespan, excellent protection from fire, almost no maintenance, and is almost invulnerable to insects and rot.

Unfortunately, slate is also very heavy, and may require extra support for the building, adding to the cost. Slate is delicate and difficult to walk on for a non-professional, making do-it-yourself tasks such as cleaning gutters difficult.

Composition Shingles

Composition shingles tend to be one of the most popular, simply for the variety of materials and styles. They offer a clean look and are generally within the budget of most homeowners. High-end shingles are made from fiberglass or asphalt and offer a sturdier choice, and many are manufactured with recycled materials.

Composition roofing is fairly simple to install, and can often be placed over an existing roof. They are easy to maintain and can be walked upon without damage. Most are highly rated for fire protection. Their major disadvantages are a tendency to tear off in high wind conditions and easy scarring in high heat.


Thanks, Tom!

Tom Demers writes for Express Roofing which is a 27 years old exclusively residential roofing company located in New England and is an Andover roofing contractor.



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