In most of our articles, we focus on roof repair and roof replacement, what options you have available for material, style, and so on. Today’s post is going to be a little different. This post goes much deeper than that. We will be closely examining the history of the roofing trade, providing a general overview of its historical developments and technological breakthroughs.

There are so many roofing options available to you today — after all, the entire history of roofing solutions is at the disposal of the modern roofing trade. The vast array of possibilities in modern roofing is incredible. Tim Leeper Roofing is proud to be part of this long tradition of craftsmen solving the practical problems of establishing a dwelling, engineering for different environments, and creating beautiful works of architectural art. If you are in Nashville and want to speak with the region’s roofing pros about a potential roofing project, contact us today.

What Is A Roof?

Obvious as the question may seem, questions like “What is a roof?” lay out some of the important bones for historical analysis — for example, do banana leaves atop some stick walls qualify as a roof? Do we define a roof according to its function — so any cover atop a building that serves to protect against snow, wind, rain, etc. is a roof? Does that mean that any style that diverges from a minimalist, practical design is merely ornamental?

Understanding what a roof is is not a matter of simply describing its function, because there is a long history of aesthetic and architectural transformation that is excised when the history of roofing is understood to be purely practical-technological. Almost certainly, the earliest forms of roofs were built with such a pragmatic attitude; however, if the history of roofs were only a matter of practical technological development, how does one explain the vast proliferation of styles and forms, styles which are regionally and culturally distinct, and which serve other purposes beside pragmatism — like religious worship, the appreciation of beauty for its own sake, or to support the legitimacy of the institution housed within?

The history of roofs is also the history of ideas, in that it is a history that is tied to the history of building and architectural design. Through these more theoretical channels, roof designs are impacted by the cultural attitudes and aspirations of their distinct historical locus. There is something inherently utopian in all architecture and building — there is always a vision of the future, explicit or implicit, built into the formal aspects of a building, and this includes the very prominent and all-important roof.

Before we get to the later, more complex developments in the history of the roof, though, let’s start from the beginning. After working through what we may call the “pre-history” of the roof, we’ll look at examples of buildings that in some way characterize new developments, analyzing in particular four main elements:

  • Material
  • Construction
  • Durability
  • Vision (of the future, of the past, of the present)

Now, to begin at the beginning:

The Earliest Roofs

Trees, caves, and other natural spaces that offered protection from the rain and wind served to shelter early homo sapiens from the dangers of living in nature, such as the elements and predators. Alongside fire, one of the earliest defining technologies of mankind was the dwelling. The earliest dwellings were likely little more than a roof thatched with straw, reeds, or branches — most likely pitched on a slope, to help rain drain off the side. Eventually, thicker branches and timber began to be used to span across roofs, and clay or another impermeable substance was utilized to patch up all the gaps. With this development came the possibility of gabled and flat roofs.

Later on, around 7,000 BCE, the first archaeologically identified bricks began to be used as a building material, the oldest remnants being found in modern-day Turkey in Jericho. The first bricks were simply mud bricks formed in warm environments, that would be set in the sun to harden. It wasn’t until 3,500 BCE that the fired brick was invented — a major breakthrough. From this point on, it became possible to create buildings made of brick in colder environments as well as warm ones.

To strengthen their roofs, the Ancient Egyptians mixed aluminum in with their bricks. Since then, other metals like copper and zinc have become common, and are still used today. This brings us to the first of our focuses of analysis: the history of roofing materials.

The History of Roofing Materials

The history of roofing materials has largely been driven by performance and access. Regional variations emerged largely due to access to materials — people in more barren, warm environments tended to build with clay, while forest-dwellers used trees.

Around 3,000 BCE, the first known roof tiles were created in ancient Mesopotamia. However, it wasn’t till 2,500 years later that the ancient Greeks began to replace the more ubiquitous thatched roof with roof tiles. Around 650 BCE, roof tiles exploded in popularity all across Western Asia Minor and Central and Southern Italy. Though they were heavier and more expensive than thatched roofs, their greater resistance to fire is likely what made them so desirable. However, that’s not the whole story of terracotta roof tiles in Ancient Greece. The popularity of roof tiles in Ancient Greece may in fact have been related to the rise of monumental architecture there. With new stone walls replacing mud bricks and wood walls came the possibility of heavier roofs.

The push away from wood and thatch roofs would not be dominant in Europe for another 2,000 years, however. Early European legislation reveals that it wasn’t until the 14th century when, in Holland, the earliest city ordinance against wood and thatch roofing were created, specifically as a measure against fires. Due to the rise in demand of roof tiles, new factories began to be built next to the rivers, where there was a reliable source of clay and cheap transport.

Continued in Part II…

In this post, we set the groundwork to the history of roofs and overviewed the materials that have been used that led to different possibilities of roof design. In our next post, we will be looking at the design elements of roofing, and how it fits in with the overall vision of the society that was creating it. Finally, in Part III, we will look at the history of roofing over the 20th century, to get a better understanding of the modern roofing trade and how far it has come, even in such a short period of time. For, even today, a 20-year-old asphalt roof is technologically less effective than what is being built today. We’ll save a detailed discussion of that for another time, but if you are looking for a modern, super-effective roof installed on your home or business in Nashville, contact Tim Leeper Roofing today and get your Speedy Fast Quote!