When Is A Slate Roof Not A Slate Roof?

What is the true essence of a slate roof? If I take one thousand slate shingles and nail them to a roof, is that a slate roof, or is there something more? What is the essential nature of a slate roof?  These innate qualities of a slate roof must be present and they suggest they be neither good nor bad, they just “are.” I think we would all agree that one characteristic of a slate roof would be craftsmanship. Now, don’t stray and pair the words “good” or “bad” with craftsmanship.  There is only craftsmanship or there is not. Craftsmanship is the culmination of all of the skills of the craftsman, woodworker, carpenter, mechanic, artist, carver, etc.

The essence of a slate roof includes:

Crafstmanship, which is comprised of:

  • proper headlap
  • proper sidelap
  • proper nailing of the slate – not too loose, not too tight
  • use of a cant strip 
  • proper coursing from the eave to ridge
  • straight, even rows
  • starter slate upside down
  • appropriately paired accessories and flashings
  • correct height starter slate
  • correct integration with the nieghbor’s roofs 

and, workmanship is the exercise of care, plus judgement plus dexterity.” David Pye
Recently, I encountered a new roof that had slate nailed to it, but lacked all of the aforementioned qualities. My first reaction as I ascended the top rungs of my ladder, was that this is not a slate roof. Standing on the ground and looking up, it surely resembled a slate roof, much like a mannequin can be mistaken for a human from afar. But after leaning a ladder against the house and nearing the dull gray surface, I could see that I, along with all of the passers-by, were deceived. All of the essence of a slate roof had been stripped away because there was no craftsmanship. Now, one or two missing characteristics could be overlooked, but the entire list had been used like an anti-checklist — like someone said, “lets make a checklist of slate roofing attributes to exclude and we’ll check them off, one by one, as we choose to ignore them. This gray surface above the attic was appalling and a sham. I looked all over the roof and couldn’t find the craftmanship, and I soon came to the realization, that it was never there. I then began going through the checklist in my mind, starter slate upside down, nope; cant strip, nope; straight even rows, nope, proper headlap, nope; proper sidelap, nope; etc, etc. 

not a slate roof

But what about the customer? How could they accept this? This was perhaps, the perfect storm of indifference. It seemed that the only concerned parties were the two neighbors who flanked this unfortunate disaster. As it turns out, this house was foreclosed on after the great housing debacle of 2008, and had been vacant for some time. The “owner” of the home was a bank in Arizona and how well can one of a thousand bank owned houses be taken care of more than half way across the country? The only concern of the bank was how the roof in question interacted with the neighbor’s roofs, which the bank agreed it had an obligation to correct the problem. None of the other problems would be remedied. I can only wonder if an unsuspecting buyer will purchase this property and not have the slate roof properly inspected.

There are several morals to this story:

  • Don’t take the lowest bid. 
  • Question the craftsman; learn enough to know what questions to ask. 
  • Don’t assume that a house with a new slate roof doesn’t require an inspection prior to sale. 

When all of the characteristics of a slate roof as enumerated above are missing, we are left with a bunch of pieces of stone nailed to a roof, and the result is that element of durability has been stripped away. Regardless of what it is, that thing that is cheaply made or poorly designed, will not last. 

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