Roof Rot: Ignorance Is an Easy Way to Damage Low-slope Residential Roofs

Change often brings with it unintended consequences, and the issue of reflective roof surfaces in North America is no exception. In the late 1990s, U.S. cities in northern climates started to mandate the use of reflective roof—more for politics, feel-good, pseudo-environmental reasons than sustainable, resilient and durable reasons. In my estimation, cool roofs often did more to lower the quality of buildings than enhance them. Furthermore, code and standard changes were made with no understanding of the result and no education to the architects of America.

Figure 1: Reduced attic space resulted in a roof section comprised of the following components from the interior to the roof cover.

Figure 1: Reduced attic space resulted in a roof section comprised of the following components from the interior to the roof cover.

Although the resulting unintended consequences affected commercial and residential buildings, it was the often-catastrophic results on low-slope residential buildings that went untold and left homeowners with tens of thousands of dollars of corrective work on basically new residences.

Following is a summary of how these concerns evolved in wood-framed residential construction. I’ve included case studies of failures, potential solutions and lessons learned.

HISTORY

During the industrialization of America’s large cities throughout the 1800s, the need for labor caused populations to explode. To house the labor migration, row houses (3- to 4-story structures, often with a garden level and four or more narrow units) were constructed approximately 3-feet apart, block after block, creating medium-sized apartment blocks. Most of these row houses were wood-framed, masonry veneer with low-slope roof structures. The interior walls and ceilings were finished in cementitious plaster, which provided a durable, fire-resistive finish. The plaster also performed as an effective air and vapor barrier, preventing interior conditioned air from penetrating into the non-insulated walls and ceilings where it could condense within the walls and roof on cold days.

Photo 1: A contractor was called out to fix the “soft roof” and found this catastrophic situation.

Photo 1: A contractor was called out to fix the “soft roof” and found this catastrophic situation.

Heating costs were low, so little—if any—insulation was installed in the walls and roof. Roofs were composed of built-up asphalt and coal tar, both smooth and aggregate surfaced. Attic spaces often 4 to 6 feet in height were vented via static vents. Any conditioned air that passed to the attic was able to dissipate through these static vents. This method of construction performed without significant attic condensation, and the roof systems and roof structure served these buildings for decades.

In the mid 1990s, researchers (theoretical researchers with no architectural, engineering, roofing, construction or practical building technology experience or knowledge) at research institutes conducted studies into the effects of minimizing solar gain through the roof via a reflective surface. Based on the researchers’ algorithmic findings and recommendations (regardless of their validity), environmental groups used the concept to promote change. Large cities started introducing new energy codes with reflective roofing requirements and prescribed reflectance values. These new codes contained greater insulation requirements, which was a benefit. However, in this one code adoption, roof systems, such as coal-tar pitch, that had performed for centuries were no longer permitted. Consequently, roofing contractors went out of business and so did some roofing material manufacturers because of unproven and suspect research.

Photos and Details: Hutchinson Design Group Ltd.

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Using Engineered Geofoam for Garden Roofs

For most of the past century, the rooftops of commercial and institutional buildings have largely been places to locate unsightly mechanical systems. Architectural treatments, such as parapets and screens, provide visual relief from such equipment. Now, roofing professionals and building owners increasingly look at the roof as “found space”—a place to be planted and used, instead of hidden.

Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed MPK 20 building sports a 9-acre green roof using EPS geofoam from Insulfoam.

Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed MPK 20 building sports a 9-acre green roof using EPS geofoam from Insulfoam.

Throughout the U.S., garden roofs (or living roofs) are growing in popularity with more than 5.5 million square feet installed in 2014, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. Most of that total was for private rather than public projects, indicating this is not just a government trend. In addition to providing attractive and usable open space, garden roofs offer environmental benefits, such as helping to slow and filter urban run-off.

Some of America’s largest companies have installed green roofs. Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., truck plant final assembly building sports one of the world’s largest living roofs at 454,000 square feet. In 2015, Facebook opened its MPK 20 office building in Menlo Park, Calif., with a 9-acre living roof featuring a 1/2-mile walking trail and more than 400 trees.

If you haven’t worked on a garden roof yet, it is likely only a matter of time until you do.

Addressing the Challenges of Garden Roofs

Weighing a fraction of soil, EPS geofoam fill creates ultra-lightweight landscaped features on Facebook’s garden roof.

Weighing a fraction of soil, EPS geofoam fill creates ultra-lightweight landscaped features on Facebook’s garden roof.


Adding plants and park-like amenities to a roof increases the complexity of the roofing assembly. Garden roofs present two primary challenges for roofing professionals to solve: minimizing the dead load and preventing moisture intrusion.

The project team for the Facebook MPK 20 building’s green roof met this two-fold need—and more—with expanded polystyrene (EPS) geofoam.

Weighing considerably less than soil, EPS geofoam is an ultra-lightweight engineered fill that can be used to create contoured landscape features, such as hills and valleys. The material weighs from 0.7 to 2.85 pounds per cubic foot, depending on the product type specified, compared to 110 to 120 pounds per cubic foot for soil.

Despite its low weight, EPS geofoam is designed for strength and has better load bearing capacity than most foundation soils. Geofoam’s compressive resistance ranges from approximately 2.2 psi to 18.6 psi (317 to 2,678 pounds per square foot) at a 1 percent deformation, depending on the product.

The garden roof on Facebook’s MPK 20 building provides ample open space and a half-mile walking trail for employees.

The garden roof on Facebook’s MPK 20 building provides ample open space and a 1/2-mile walking trail for employees.

EPS geofoam is also effective at addressing the second challenge of garden roofs: managing moisture absorption. The moisture performance of the various components in a green roof assembly is critical; retained water imposes additional loads on the roof and increases the risk of water damage to the roof assembly. EPS geofoam meeting ASTM D6817 standards works well here as it only absorbs 2 to 4 percent moisture by volume, even over long-term exposure, and it dries quickly. The moisture performance of EPS has been demonstrated in extensive in-situ applications and real-world testing, including research conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. After burying EPS in wetted soil for nearly three years, the lab found that the material absorbed only 1.7 percent moisture by volume.

In addition to enabling lightweight, durable landscape features and helping to defend against water, EPS geofoam provides thermal insulation in garden roofs. Roofing professionals have used EPS insulation in roof assemblies for decades because it offers the highest R-value per dollar among rigid foam insulations.

Expect More Demand

Although green roofs currently account for a small portion of the billions of square feet of roofs in the U.S., expect to see more demand for them given their aesthetic and environmental benefits. High-performance materials, like EPS geofoam, can help provide a long-lasting, durable green roof assembly.

PHOTOS: Insulfoam