Roof Decks: Don’t Underestimate the Backbone of the Roof System

NOTE: This article is intended to provide general information while conveying the importance of the roof deck as an integral part of a roof system. Additional information about specific effects and concerns in regard to roofing can be found in The NRCA Roofing and Waterproofing Manual and various roof-cover manufacturers’ design guides.

Wood plank decks can provide a dramatic exposed roof deck.

Wood plank decks can provide a dramatic exposed roof deck.

The roof deck is the backbone and an integral component of all roofing systems. Its main function is to provide structural support for the roof system and, therefore, is a building element that needs to be designed by a licensed design professional because proper support of the roofing above is critical to the roof system’s success.

Roof decks also add thermal performance and fire resistance and ratings, provide slope for drainage and enhance wind-uplift performance. They must accommodate building movement and often determine the attachment method of the vapor retarder, insulation and membrane.

Roof Deck Types

There are many types of roof decks being installed today:

  • Steel
  • Precast concrete panel
  • Structural concrete
  • Cementitious wood fiber
  • Wood planking
  • Plywood/OSB
  • Poured gypsum

Some decks are covered with topping fills that become the base for the roof system and may also be an integral structural component:

  • Concrete
  • Lightweight insulation concrete topping
  • Lightweight aggregate concrete topping

Other deck toppings are available, such as poured gypsum and lightweight concrete with integral insulation, but these are considered substrate covers and not roof decks.

The most prevalent roof deck in the U.S. for commercial buildings is steel. On the West Coast, plywood/OSB is very popular. In addition to the roof decks already mentioned, in the course of roof-replacement work the designer may come in contact with the following:

While the “plate” test is not a preferred method, it can quickly and inexpensively give an indication of retained moisture in lightweight aggregate concrete roof deck covers.

While the “plate” test is not a preferred method, it can quickly and inexpensively
give an indication of retained moisture in lightweight aggregate
concrete roof deck covers.

  • Book tile
  • Lightweight precast concrete planks
  • Precast gypsum planks
  • Transite

Collaboration with the Structural Engineer

Because a roof deck is the foundation for the roof system, the designer needs to coordinate the roof system design requirements for the roof deck with the structural engineer to ensure the performance of the roof system. For example, the roof deck may need to extend to the roof edge. In this example, the roof deck may not need to extend to the roof edge for structural concerns but is needed to support the roof system; the roof designer must address this. If the roof deck is structurally sloped, the designer and engineer must determine whether the low point is a potential drain location. Are there steel beams in the way of the drain location? The roof deck must be attached to the structure to prevent uplift. And the designer and engineer must determine what the deflection of the roof-deck span may be between structural supports. For example, steel deck is sometimes installed with spans of 7 feet between joists and flexes (deflects) under foot traffic. This typically is not a good condition onto which a ridged roof system, such as a bituminous one, should be installed. It cannot be expected to accommodate such deflection. PHOTOS: Hutchinson Design Group Ltd. [Read more…]

Attention Roof System Designers: Numerous Roof Components Work Together to Affect a Building

There has been a great deal of opinion expressed in the past 15 years related to the roof cover(s), or the top surface of a roof system, such as “it can save you energy” and “it will reduce urban heat islands”. These opinions consequently have resulted in standards and code revisions that have had an extraordinary effect on the roofing industry.

The building type should influence the type of roof system designed. Some spaces, like this steel plant, are unconditioned, so insulation in the roof system is not desired.

The building type should influence the type of roof system designed. Some spaces, like this steel plant, are unconditioned, so insulation in the roof system is not desired.

Let’s say it loud and clear, “A single component, does not a roof make!”. Roofs are systems, composed of numerous components that work and interact together to affect the building in question. Regardless of your concern or goal—energy performance, urban heat-island minimization, long-term service life (in my opinion, the essence of sustainability) or protection from the elements—the performance is the result of an assembled set of roof system components.

Roof System Components

Energy conservation is an often-discussed potential of roofs, but many seem to think it is the result of only the roof-cover color. I think not. Energy performance is the result of many factors, including but not limited to:

Building use: Is the building an office, school, hospital, warehouse, fabrication facility, etc.? Each type of building use places different requirements on the roof system.

Spatial use and function be low the roof deck: It is not uncommon in urban areas to have mechanical rooms or interstitial spaces below the roof—spaces that require little to no heating or cooling. These spaces are typically unconditioned and unoccupied and receive no material benefit from the roof system in regard to energy savings.

Roof-deck type: The type of roof deck—whether steel; cast-in-place, precast and post-tensioned concrete; gypsum; cementitious wood fiber; or (don’t kill the messenger) plywood, which is a West Coast anomaly—affects air and moisture transport toward the exterior, as well as the type of roof system.

Roof-to-wall transition(s): The transition of the roofing to walls often results in unresolved design issues, as well as cavities that allow moisture and vapor transport.

Meanwhile others, like this indoor pool, require extreme care in design and should include a vapor retarder and insulation.

Meanwhile others, like this indoor pool, require extreme care in design and
should include a vapor retarder and insulation.

Roof air and/or vapor barrier: Its integration into the wall air barrier is very important. Failure to tie the two together creates a breach in the barrier.

Substrate board: Steel roof decks often require a substrate board to support the air and vapor barrier membranes. The substrate board also can be the first layer of the roof system to provide wind-uplift resistance.

Insulation type: Each insulation type—whether polyisocyanurate, expanded polystyrene, extruded polystyrene, wood fiber, foam glass or mineral wool—has differing R-values, some of which drop with time. Many insulation types have differing facer options and densities.

The number of insulation layers: This is very important! A single layer of insulation results in a high level of energy loss; 7 percent is the industry standard. When installing multiple layers of insulation, the joints should be offset from layer to layer to avoid vapor movement and thermal shorts.

Sealing: Voids between rooftop penetrations, adjacent board and the roof-edge perimeters can create large avenues for heat loss.

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