roof and pavement consultants

Roofing Industry Recollections

Jeff Evans, RRC
Vice President

I didn’t come into the roofing industry in November 1977 on purpose. With a newly-minted degree in Construction Administration from UW Madison, I was fully expecting to go to work with a general contractor and build buildings. But, in 1977 there was a recession in the construction industry, so no one was hiring wet-behind-the-ears project managers. I was married to my high school sweetheart for just two years and had a 5-month old daughter to support. So when I was offered a sales/estimator position with a large roofing contractor, I thought “get some experience in the construction industry, build a resume, and move up when the economy comes back.”

Forty-two years later, I am still in the roofing industry and can say that it has been as rewarding a career as my 22-year-old self could have imagined. I will retire in January 2020, and so this article was requested by my Benchmark associates, who asked me to reflect on the changes in the industry that I have witnessed.

I have participated in one of the most dynamic periods in the most innovative industry in construction. Changes in roofing have been too many to accurately recall, but here is a short list of the most notable changes and my editorial comments on each:

1.  Advent of Single-Ply Roofing/Decline of Built Up Roofing.

In 1977, single-ply roofing was just getting a toe-hold in the market. Neoprene, EPDM, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) membranes were brought to market to compete with asphalt and coal-tar pitch built up roofs that had dominated the low slope commercial roofing market for nearly a century.   Carlisle, Uniroyal, Gates Engineering, Plymouth Rubber, Goodyear, and other familiar rubber manufacturers entered the EPDM roofing market. Dynamit Nobel (Trocal), Sarnafil, Sukoflex, Alkor, Braas and other European PVC manufacturers came to market and were followed by several U.S. manufacturers, Cooley and Plymouth Rubber, and a very short-lived VCP.

Some of the early PVC membranes were non-reinforced, which often led to significant membrane shrinkage. I had a school client who had a ballasted PVC roof. He commented to me that every spring he had to pull the gutters back down off the roof to their normal position. The PVC membrane was pulling the gutters up onto the roof each winter. Who could have predicted that?

Early non-reinforced PVC membranes also went through a period of time (mid 1980s) where a number of instances of membrane shattering occurred, suddenly leaving buildings with no viable roof system. Significant water damage resulted, and it took several years for the PVC roofing segment to recover from the taint of that failure.

Early EPDM roofs were seamed with liquid (neoprene based) adhesives, which were not resistant to long-term exposure of ponded water. As a result, butyl-based adhesives were introduced in the mid-1980s (which were better) and finally seam tape adhesives developed in the late 1980s, that were much more reliable and durable.

Around 1980, JP Stevens developed a DuPont Hypalon-based single-ply membrane that was white, reinforced and generally heat-weldable. It was also very price competitive with PVC and EPDM systems. Their hypalon membrane was originally a good roofing membrane, capable of being adhered, ballasted and mechanically fastened. JP Stevens went through several reorganizations, becoming JPS Elastomerics and then Stevens Roofing Systems. In my opinion, they knew how to make a very good single-ply membrane but cut product quality to improve profitability or gain a larger market share. I recently have been on several 30-year-old JP Stevens roofs still performing well, but I also witnessed many failures of the same product (sometimes failing before the roof installation was finished). I attribute these failures to purposeful cheapening of the product.

Thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) membranes entered the U.S. market around 1993. Again, JPS Elastomerics or Stevens Roofing Systems was one of the first with their “EP” membrane. Their TPO membranes suffered from being too thin (which was always my gripe with them), and their “Cool Black” was a poor decision from the start. TPO membranes require heat and UV stabilizers to protect the TPO “backbone” and making the product black in color made it age faster than the white version. It is clear this product did not get sufficient field testing.

Oddly, Stevens Roofing Systems was purchased by Dow Chemical in 2008, and then subsequently ceased all roof membrane sales in 2011. Dow bought the responsibility of Stevens warranties and had to respond to warranty claims for a decade after that purchase.

Carlisle, Firestone, and GAF also introduced TPO membranes in the mid to late 1990s. The industry observed that some TPO membranes were deteriorating much faster than expected, particularly in areas of reflected light and high heat. Reformulating the TPO blends resulted and these newer formulas seem to have improved TPO membrane resistance to heat and sunlight.

In the backdrop of the surge in single-ply roofing popularity, built-up roofing went from nearly 100 percent of the low slope roofing market in 1975, to as low as 6 percent in 2016.

2.  Roof Insulation Changes

Commercial roof insulations available in the 1970s included the choice of perlite, wood fiber, rigid fiberglass and to a lesser extent, foam glass. Extruded and expanded polystyrene insulations came into the roofing market more as a result of the increase in single-ply sales, though some roofing contractors used expanded polystyrene as a base layer in asphalt built-up roof assemblies.

The 1970s witnessed the first use of polyurethane insulation in roof assemblies. Because it was marketed as having R-values as high as 8 per inch (with the other insulations having an R-value of 2.78 – 3.0 per inch), and were lighter and larger (4 x 4 foot and 4 x 8 foot boards), polyurethane was popular for a period. The primary negative with polyurethane insulation is that is lacked sufficient fire resistance and required the use of a thermal (fire) barrier. It was also thought to cause blistering in built-up roofs that were directly applied to it. As such, polyurethane insulation was replaced in the market by polyisocyanurate insulation around 1980.

Polyisocyanurate insulation has since become the workhorse of the industry. It is sufficiently fire resistant to be applied directly to a steel deck for UL Class A fire rating on most low-slope roof assemblies. Changes in environmental regulations have required insulation manufacturers to reformulate several times, to replace ozone depleting blowing agents in the product. Some issues with dimensional stability and cupping were experienced but have, for the most part, been corrected.

From 1982 to 1992 Koppers, and then later Johns Manville, manufactured phenolic foam insulation. Phenolic foam, it turns out, can be quite corrosive to steel decks when it becomes wet and isin direct contact with steel. A class action lawsuit was filed due to the number of deck corrosion reports, and Beazer East, then the owner of Koppers, spent a decade settling claims and mopping up that mess.

In the 1970s, it was most common to see buildings outfitted with 3/4″ or 1″ perlite, fiberboard, or fiberglass. It was rare to see anything else, unless the roof insulation was tapered and provided slope. The movement to reduce building energy usage took root in the late 1970s, and the first Model Energy Code was published in 1983.

Under the theory that “more is better,” each updated version of the International Energy Conservation Code has required higher R-values than the prior version. The most recent 2018 IECC code has the smallest increase in R-value requirement, reflecting that we perhaps have reached a point where adding more insulation does not economically reduce energy consumption.

3.  Roofing Market Influencers

Our roofing industry needs leadership to meet the requirements of the roof-buying public, roofing contractors, and design professionals. These organizations help keep our industry on the right track. These organizations’ interests are not always the same, but I feel all are motivated to raise up our industry.

The National Roofing Contractors Association has been influencing the roofing market since 1886. The NRCA has, in my history, been a valuable source for roofing research and technical advice and has been an advocate for good roofing practices. While it naturally sees the roofing market from a contractor’s perspective, the NRCA is a strong influencer in our industry.

From a roof designer’s standpoint, FM Global is one of the most important forces over the past 42 years. For example, prior to the late 1970s, most roof insulation was adhered to the roof deck in hot asphalt, even on steel decks. Because of FM loss prevention research, in 1984 FM Global began requiring beginning that roof insulation be attached to steel deck with screws and plates, in lieu of hot asphalt, which jump-started the insulation fastener industry.

For years, FM Global published their tested and approved roof assemblies in the annual FM Approval Guide. The Approval Guide was replaced in 2001 by the online “RoofNav” database of approved roofing systems.

FM Global (FMG) maintains a number of Loss Prevention Data Sheets (LPDS) to help roof designers create more resilient roof systems. FMG periodically issues updates of these data sheets, and sometimes it causes disruption in the roofing industry. Benchmark is a member of an industry group called the “FM Coalition,” made up of key industry stakeholders. The group meets annually with FM to receive a preview of upcoming LPDS changes and provide feedback.

Roof Consultants Institute was formed in 1983, later called RCI, Inc. and is now IIBEC, the International Building Enclosure Consultants. Benchmark has been a member of RCI/IIBEC since the mid-1980s. The purpose of RCI was to promote the roof consulting industry and provide its members with certification opportunities. I was in the first class of roof consultant to take and pass the Registered Roof Consultant (RRC) test in 1988. IIBEC has become a roof/building envelope industry leader.

SPRI (formerly Single-Ply Roofing Institute) was formed in 1981, to represent single-ply roofing manufacturers in the market. The manufacturer members included modified bitumen roofing manufacturers, as some of their products were sold as single-ply systems. Since its inception, its membership expanded to include component suppliers, raw material suppliers and consultants. This organization, of which Benchmark is a member, is an ANSI-approved standards developer. Seeing gaps between building code requirements and the ability to comply with those requirements, SPRI has worked hard to fill some of those gaps, with new standards such as ANSI/SPRI ES-1, the Test Standard for Edge Systems Used with Low Sloped Roofing Systems. This standard, which has been adopted into the International Building Code, helps designers meet the design requirements for metal edge securement requirements in the code.

Having worked with SPRI over the past 15 years, I consider them to be a smart, hardworking group, dedicated to improving the roofing industry.

4.  Roofing Innovation and Unintended Consequences

Innovation in the roofing industry is alive and well. After a period of relative calm, the last five years or so has seen an increase in the introduction of new products. Some of these innovations are driven by changes in regulations. For example, new adhesives have been developed to meet lower VOC emission standards. The adhesive formulations and application methods of the old adhesives were well known, and application of the newer adhesives requires re-training.

The introduction of induction-welded method (i.e. RhinoBond) for the attachment of heat-weldable single-ply systems seemed well-timed with the changes FM Global made to their 4470 test standard. That change eliminated the approvals of many seam-attached systems due to concerns with overstressing steel roof decks. The induction-welded method has a learning curve for crews that have not done it before. Benchmark uses this attachment method frequently and has modified its specifications to include requirements for calibration of the induction welder, for care of magnets, and for spacing of induction plates.

The recent change in hail resistance requirements by FM Global is another example. The Very Severe Hail (VSH) rating currently requires manufacturers to resort to using oriented strand board (OSB) as a “cover board” to meet the VSH standard. OSB has not been used within low slope roofing assemblies for extended periods, or on a wide scale, so we have definite concerns about its performance. Likewise, there are several firms working on a high-density cover board that is based on compressed recycled juice boxes or plastic beverage containers. I fully expect there to be unforeseen issues with these products.

This industry has become quite complicated. It seems that every manufacturer supplies an ever-increasing list of products and accessories. We recognize innovation has a definite upside, but there is a risk of combining products that are not compatible, or are not meant to be used together, resulting in failure or heartache. The use of “tried and true” methods is still a good recommendation. The road of early adopters is strewn with fender benders and collisions. My recommendation is go slow and let others experiment.

5.  Labor Issues

A year or so ago I wrote an article entitled, “Roofing Contractor or Labor Broker?”. In it I recalled earlier days in my career where each roofing contractor had its own crews, trained them, and kept them together for years. This still happens with many contractors, but we have seen a growing trend of large national contractors to sub-contract their installation labor on many projects. This may be in response to the trend of large building owners pooling their roofing projects and bidding out packages of roof replacements. In order to compete for this work, contractors need to be able to travel or have multiple locations to serve that need.

As a result, through our contractor qualification process we have tried to get contractors to commit to doing our projects with their own forces. If we have to accept sub-contract crews to get a project done, we require prior knowledge of who the subcontractors are, their qualification and credentials. Even with these measures, we sometimes learn that not all roofers on a project are employed by the prime roofing contractor. It is frustrating.

In my career, I have also witnessed the changing landscape from primarily English-speaking crews to primarily Spanish-speaking crews. It makes me wish I took Spanish rather than German in school, as communication is sometimes challenging. I have no doubt that Hispanic workers are willing, capable, and wanting to do things right. Our industry’s challenge is to meet their needs in training and communication.

The roofing industry has been fun. I cannot imagine what else I might have done in my work career that would have been as challenging and interesting. Where else would I have had the opportunity to meet and serve such a good group of clients, or work alongside of hard-working contractors and design professionals? I am grateful to my partners at Benchmark who encouraged me to join them on the journey of owning and developing Benchmark into the great group it has become.

In closing, I have experienced a lot my 42-year career and have greatly enjoyed serving Benchmark clients to the best of my abilities. I am proud of the current Benchmark team, as being the most dedicated and knowledgeable group of professionals you will encounter in the roof and pavement consulting industries.

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