Troublesome Issues in the Roofing Industry Can Be Corrected with Knowledge and Proper Detailing

This metal stud parapet wall creates a condition in which interior warm moist air can rise above the roof level and condense.

This metal stud parapet wall creates a condition in which interior warm moist air can rise above the roof level and condense. The insulation shown will prevent some but not all of the conditions required for condensation.

For those us who have been involved in the roofing industry for many years— in my case, 30— this current period of roofing material stabilization is a godsend. Materials can now be specified without performance concerns, such as premature deterioration or destabilization.

But why are there still so many roofing concerns that result in the involvement of attorneys? I believe the lack of an educated design class of architects is leading this charge, resulting in a litany of roof failures whose root cause often can be found in the design of the roof systems and a lack of knowledge in regard to building science and roofing installations.

Following are reviews of several, but certainly not all, issues I see day in and day out:

The Architect

The design professional— whether architect, engineer or consultant— is charged by the owner to design a roof system that will perform for the climatic conditions in which the building is located. Why is this so difficult? When I ask educators why there isn’t more education in regard to roofing (and building envelope) in school, they reply, “They will learn it in the office.” I find this funny because most offices I have encountered have no clue; thus, the clueless are charged with teaching the neophytes.

In addition, despite the fact that the Washington, D.C.-based American Institute of Architects reports that moisture intrusion is the number one issue resulting in building-related lawsuits, roofing just isn’t glamorous enough for attention from architects. To quote a large roofing contractor in Chicago, “I haven’t been looking at the specifications lately; I have to bid what is possible.” Imagine if your client was aware of this!

The lack of roof system knowledge is enforced by little if no empirical experience. Design professionals should get on the roof and see not only concerns caused by design, but also gain an understanding of how roof systems are put together. Perhaps they might gain insight into how water-based adhesive doesn’t work in sub-freezing temperatures and that the almighty LEED point really wasn’t worth it.

There is a generally accepted concept in the roofing industry that architects will never get on the roof and that construction managers really only manage contracts so there will be no oversight on the roof. Getting out of the ivory tower and being onsite is so important that time in the field should be a requirement for licensure— along with knowing how to properly design through-wall flashing, but that is another story worthy of its own rant. Please go out into the field and learn how buildings are built and the challenges contractors face.

Buildings in the last decade have become very complex, and new codes haven’t made it any easier. Architects need to start gaining a better understanding of how buildings live and what they do once occupied. This understanding of how buildings function would go a long way in assisting the design of wall and roofing systems.

Building on this idea: Lack of detailing and the use of canned office master specs that rely heavily on “install to the manufacturer’s specifications or recommendations” need to change. Although important, let’s admit the manufacturer’s specifications are the lowest market-driven minimum for manufacturers to compete with their competitors. Kind of like a code: the worst you can install for a warranty. Architects should be designing resilient roof systems, which are sustainable by definition. (If you don’t know about resilience and its importance after this past year of severe weather, you are well behind the current governmental agency movements toward having resilient mandates.)

View all images here.

About the Author

Thomas W. Hutchinson, AIA, FRCI, RRC, CSI, RRP
Thomas W. Hutchinson, AIA, FRCI, RRC, CSI, RRP, principal of Hutchinson Design Group Ltd., Barrington, Ill., has more than three decades of experience in the roofing industry.

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