roofing and roof specialties

Tiling Up

What does a designer need to know when specifying clay roofing tile?

Click here for a list of suppliers of tile

By Nicole V. Gagné

Despite the enthusiasm for tile in wall decorations or as flooring, fireplaces and countertops, tile has always been most at home on the roof. The very word “tile” comes from the French tuile, which derives from the Latin tegula: a baked-clay roof tile. Such tile roofs can be traced back as early as the 3rd millennium B.C. in Greece; by 600 B.C., these roofs also appeared in Italy, the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia Minor. A mere 2,400 years later, tile was also an American phenomenon, with manufacturing plants thriving in the U.S. After a temporary eclipse in the first half of the 20th century, tile began a renaissance in the States, and today it has become a permanent design fixture.

The 18-in. Cordova Presidio blend roof tile supplied by Gladding, McBean is the crowning glory of this eye-catching roofline, complete with turret. Photo: courtesy of Gladding, McBean

For such a contemporary product, surprisingly little about tile has changed over the years. Jim Anderson is the sales and marketing manager of Lincoln, CA-based Gladding, McBean. “We’ve been manufacturing clay roof tiles for over 100 years,” he says. “I’ve looked at our old sales literature from the 1920s and ’30s, and the market really still seems to want what was produced back then. In fact, architects and owners want, more so now than ever, the same look that was created back in the early part of the last century.”

Guillaume Latil, vice president and general manager of New Lexington, OH-based Ludowici Roof Tile, Inc. – a firm that also began manufacturing in the U.S. back in the 19th century – sees a similar demand for authentic clay tile. “There is a stronger and stronger interest in clay tile, as opposed to concrete tile,” he says. “It’s the color fastness of tile; the concrete color will fade away. After World War II, Europe was basically rebuilt with concrete tile, because the investment for a manufacturing plant of concrete tile is very minimal, compared to the investment for a plant of clay tile. But as time went by, people realized the benefits of clay versus concrete, and manufacturers started investing in clay-roof-tile plants. Now the proportion in Europe is 80 to 90 percent clay, versus 10 to 20 percent concrete. I would not be surprised if, in the long term, we see a comparable pattern in the U.S.”

The Spanish design of this house demands appropriate roofing, such as the 18-in. Cordova Franciscan blend of roof tile from Gladding, McBean seen here. Photo: courtesy of Gladding, McBean

“I think that there’s just a lot more interest in and use of clay tile,” says Mike Lukis, owner of Frankfort, IL-based Tile Roofs, Inc., which offers one of the largest stocks of salvaged clay roof tile and tile fittings in the U.S. “I’ve been doing this for about 30 years, and we’ve definitely seen much more interest. We’re still selling primarily salvaged material. But we just recently switched to handling new tiles – imported tiles that we’re having made in Europe, and we’re also representatives for a U.S. tile company. Most of the salvaged material that we sell is used for restoration work, repair work and especially additions that require a precise, historically accurate match of the existing tiles on a home. When you use salvaged tile from the same era and same manufacturer, people can’t even tell that it’s an addition. Oftentimes, we can get almost an exact match with salvaged material.”

By contrast, Anderson says that in his experience less than 10 percent of tile is used for restoration. “Even in restoration, the existing tiles are often still in good shape,” he says. “They’re pulled off the roof, the membrane below the tiles is replaced and then the old tiles are re-installed. During that process, they do break some tiles or come across previously broken tiles, so some new pieces do go into those projects. But more and more people want to reuse what’s up there. Very few old tiles are thrown away. About 90 percent of our business is new construction, whether it’s residential, commercial or institutional.”

Ludowici Roof Tile, Inc., was the source for the black-mist Colonial Tile and bonnet hip plates used for the roof of this residence. Photo: courtesy of Ludowici Roof Tile, Inc.

Ludowici has seen a similar growth in demand for tile in new houses built in period styles. “We have always sold tiles for renovation and additions,” says Latil. “This is part of our ongoing effort to service our century-old customer base. We also supply more and more roofs for new residences in the Mediterranean style.” This drift away from restoration is reflected in the relatively minor demand for custom tile from these firms. “Our custom design is not a large share of the market,” says Latil. “It’s something that we do to match what our customers want. But in the industry, it’s a small part of the business.”

Old house or new old house, there are still certain fundamentals homeowners need to know regarding tile roofs. Anderson notes that it’s important to find a tile with high compressive strength. “Every roof in the world has to be walked upon at some time, and you want to be able to walk on a roof that won’t crack under your feet,” he says. “Then, of course, in freeze-thaw areas, you want to make sure you have a Grade-1 tile that resists freezing.

Barrel tile highlighted by a gargoyle-face fitting, supplied by Ludowici, lends character to the roof of this Brooklyn, NY, residence. Photo: courtesy of Ludowici Roof Tile, Inc.

“Another issue is the color,” continues Anderson. “There are two processes for achieving color. We use the old-fashioned method, which is the mixture of clay, water and heat; we fire-flash in the traditional way, to create a blend of colors. The other method is the engove process, which is a sprayed-on finish. That’s what most manufacturers in the world do now, because it’s more streamlined and less expensive. With our process, every tile is unique in color with the fire-flashing process, but you get a nice marriage between adjacent tiles. With the engove process, you don’t achieve the same result. They try to mimic fire-flashing, but it looks too deliberate, in my opinion.”

Thinking Long Term
Latil says that a Ludowici clay-tile roof comes with a 75-year warranty. “If you have the right installer,” he says, “you can count on a maintenance-free roof that will stay beautiful for 75 years, even in severe weather conditions.” This opinion is shared by Anderson, whose firm also has a 75-year warranty for its tile roofing. “Whether the tiles are engove or not, they maintain their color over time,” he says. “And a patina is desirable for most homeowners, so there’s no reason to wash it. It really requires no maintenance. It’s an almost maintenance-free roof, until something happens to the waterproof membrane below it. Otherwise, there really isn’t anything to do.”

This home in New Orleans, LA, sports a unique vintage roof of natural red Spanish tile and fittings from Tile Roofs, Inc. Photo: courtesy of Tile Roofs, Inc.

Lukis, on the other hand, deals principally with roofs of vintage tile. “Some regular maintenance should be done to maintain the integrity of the roof, especially after a winter when you’ve had a lot of snow and ice,” he says. “You want to have your roof inspected and checked for broken tiles and just make sure that everything’s in good repair. If you let something like that go too long, it can require much more costly repairs. But in general, there’s not a lot of maintenance. A tile roof, maintained properly, will last a lot longer than a shingle roof. We had a consulting firm give us a study of costs per year of various roof systems, and a tile roof is actually one of the least expensive, given the life expectancy of the product.”

Tile’s longevity is one of its most “green” characteristics. “Clay has been a green product forever,” says Latil. “It’s a natural product. We don’t use chemicals or anything harmful to the environment. It’s also recyclable, as it can either find a second life on another roof, or it can be crushed and used as sub-layers for roads. Clay tiles and bricks also create a thermal barrier and help minimize the energy consumption of a building. But the number one thing is durability; a durable material is your best shot at sustainability.”

“Even a lot of people who take off a tile roof are not interested in putting it in a landfill,” says Lukis. “There’s a market for it, and people are becoming more aware of it. The Internet has helped a lot, as far as education and the uses and possibilities of salvaged material.”

Proper Installation
All three tile experts agree on the importance of having a tile roof installed by professionals. “It’s really best that someone who’s skilled and trained in the installation of tile does it, because a lot of architectural sheet-metal details are usually done with the tile-roofing work, like all the flashing details and the gutter system,” says Lukis. “Even most roofers don’t really know all that much about tile; just because someone is a roofer, that doesn’t mean you should let them work on your tile roof. Usually, it’s a company that specializes in it and has really skilled people who have been trained in that kind of work.”

Tile Roofs, Inc., salvaged the green Spanish roof tile that found a new life on this residence in Richmond, IL. Photo: courtesy of Tile Roofs, Inc.

Anderson notes that it’s also important to have a high-quality membrane below the tile – preferably one that exceeds American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or Universal Building Code (UBC) standards. “And then you want a certified installer to install it,” he says, “to prevent any problems with water infiltration. Gladding, McBean has an installation guide. We’re also members of the Tile Roof Institute, and they publish an installation guide that roofers still use when they’re installing clay tiles, so we refer people back to that.”

Latil says Ludowici can refer homeowners to roofers in their area who the company knows and trusts. “We also have a technical service at our plant, which can come a day or two or more on the job, to help out with the start-up,” he says. “For example, when there is a tower roof, or very specific accessories, we can have an expert come to the building site and help out the roofer.”

Recent Trends
Anderson speaks for his colleagues when he notes that the American market for clay roof tile tends to fall into what he calls “tile belt areas”: the West, mainly California and Arizona, the East Coast and Texas. “Those are the strongest states,” he says, “but the rest of the country does have an increasing demand, because of this new trend toward Italian and Spanish architecture.”

Each firm, however, experiences different preferences from its respective market. At Gladding, McBean, Anderson says that the Cordova, a C-shaped tile, is the company’s most popular offering. “It’s a traditional cap-and-pan fashion,” he says. “Right behind that, there’s a growing trend toward what we call our Italian pan, which is a large, flat Roman pan that is used in conjunction with our Cordova tile.”

“Our Spanish tile has been our best seller since the 1920s, and they have gained even more interest with our Impressionist series colors,” says Latil. “As far as the flat-profile shingles are concerned, three products are leading the way: Cottage, Georgian and Colonial. The Colonial has been on U.S. roofs for 80 years now, but the newer Cottage style is also very popular.”

Lukis emphasizes the increasing demand for other specialized products. “One of the reasons we started to custom manufacture clay tile and especially clay tile fittings is because there seems to be a shortage in the salvage marketplace of the fittings necessary to do some of the work with salvaged tile,” he says. “Often, you’ll have the field tiles but not the fittings. So we’ve worked together in partnership with a European manufacturer to make a lot of these fittings for use with salvaged tile.”

Click here for a list of suppliers of tile