Road Map for Slate Roofing Success

A reprint of an article published by Brian Stearns, president & founder of Alpine SnowGuards, in Slate Roof Quarterly. Over the years, Brian has become a thought leader in the industry, and we wanted to share this article he wrote in 2005 – about seven years after founding Alpine SnowGuards. It’s interesting to see how things have changed, and how some things have stayed the same.

From the Slate Roof Quarterly, Winter 2005, Volume 6.3

Road Map for Slate Roofing Success

By Brian Stearns

About twice a week I get a phone call from a builder who has been asked to provide a bid for a slate roof to the owner of a house that is either under construction or in the planning stages of construction. Among the first questions that I ask these people is, “what do the roofing specifications call for?” More often than not I hear laughter on the other end of the phone. The laughter is followed by, “what specifications?”

Unfortunately, this is pretty typical in the residential construction world. I compare this approach to slate roofing with attempting to drive to a destination across the country without a road map. Would you ask three different people, whom you don’t know, to give you a bid to drive a brand-new car from New York City to Los Angeles without using a map or the Interstate Highway system? Sure, they’re likely to get there eventually. But:

  1. They are all going to take a different route.
  2. They are all going to cause a certain amount of unnecessary wear and tear.
  3. If you choose the “lowest unqualified bidder,” he is probably going to have cash flow problems before he gets there.
  4. If there is a problem along the way, they are all going to blame you and/or the manufacturer of the car for getting them in to the mess to begin with.

And let’s not forget that regardless of how long it takes them or how much damage they do, they still are going to demand payment upon journey’s end!

The purpose of this article is to try to impress upon you, the reader, the importance and value of careful project “planning”. Without a good “plan”, who knows what the outcome will be.

Back in the early 1900’s most building owners and construction trades knew and understood the process of installing a slate roof. They simply knew in advance how to work around it.

It has been my experience that most building owners will evaluate price (can I afford this?) and life cycle (is this justifiable?). These are two pretty straightforward questions. Unlike so many other roof types, the decision-making process doesn’t end there, it just begins. If a person said, “I want to get my car from NYC to LA and I want to do it with as few problems and hassles as possible, how do I do that?” Instead of, “you seem to know how to drive, could you give me a price to drive my car across the country?” The obvious solution would be to:

  • Find and use the best and most up-to-date road map available.
  • Make sure that the person chosen for the drive is qualified to make the drive.
  • Ask for references that can verify that he has done this in similar cars without problems.
  • Make sure that the car itself has been prepared to the best of the owner’s ability, to assure that the driver will have the least amount of foreseeable problems possible.

In the construction industry, this “Road Map” and pre-qualification are known as the project specification.

The best way to assure a quality slate roof installation is to provide as detailed and concise a project specification as possible.  Try starting your project at the design level and use that planning to develop a concise slate roof specification. Demand in the specification that the roofer must be able to demonstrate ability to install the material, both through prior experience and on a roof “mock-up”. Insist that the person who successfully completes the “mock-up” be on the job at all times. Reference the manual or manuals whose installation techniques you intend to hold the installer to. Insist on a two-year maintenance agreement to correct any problems that may arise within a year of the roof ’s completion. Be specific about material details i.e., thickness, color, weathering, ASTM S-1 quality, type of underlayment, type and thickness of flashings, etc., etc., etc.

Think of the slate roof specification as a contract that spells out every detail possible. If the specification/road map is written with enough detail so that all parties are comparing apples-to-apples, the project should go smoothly from start to finish. If a concise specification is not provided (and followed), there is no way for different parties with different experiences to estimate a project cost and come up with similar results. More importantly, you are making the assumption that the roofer knows what he is doing and knows exactly what you want. This is a pretty hard problem to address after the roof is installed.

Of course, we all know that breakdowns and accidents can happen. That should be anticipated. Plan regular meetings to address problems. Every job has its complications. When a slate roof is being installed, it takes some planning to work around these complications.

The slate roofing industry today is booming. Now more than ever, we need to carefully plan and specify these projects, choose the materials and suppliers carefully, qualify the bidders as capable installers, plan project meetings to see that the project is on track and plan for routine and scheduled annual maintenance. The lowest bidder isn’t always the most capable bidder. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to have a person with no driver’s license drive that new car cross-country just because he was the lowest bid. Why can’t we write a specification that pre-qualifies the materials and the bidders?

As a slate roof consultant, I am generally called to look at projects when something has gone wrong. More accurately, I am called when an architect or building owner “thinks” that something has gone wrong. I would get far more pleasure (as would all parties) if I could be involved with these projects in the beginning when problems can be anticipated and eliminated.

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Alpine SnowGuards designs, engineers, and manufactures snow management systems from our facility in Morrisville, VT. We work closely with leading roofing contractors, engineering firms, developers, solar installers and roofing manufacturers to ensure we deliver quality products that do what we say they’ll do. Alpine SnowGuards can help a building qualify for LEED® credits.