A tile made in author’s own studio from Antrim clay

While others continue their love affair with galvanized and concrete, let me bring to your attention a revolutionary roof covering that has been around since the 3rd millennium BC.

The picture that illustrates this commentary is of a clay roof tile. It was made out of local clay right here in my studio. Clay roof tiles have a life span of centuries. They can be fired in a wood burning kiln and nothing needs to be imported for their manufacture.
Dominica has an abundance of clay and, since Maria, an abundance of fallen timber. But as usually happens, we ignore our own resources.

Clay roof tiles can be made in various shapes and sizes, the simplest being the traditional flat tile. The tile illustrated conforms to this pattern. I can vouch for its effectiveness because for two summers and winters I lived beneath a 250 year old roof that was made out of these tiles.

Galvanized and, to a lessor extent, reinforced concrete, begins deteriorating from day one. Clay tiles do not deteriorate – period!

The tile in question measures 10½x 6½”. Overlapping tiles are nailed to 1½” x 1” battens spaced at 4” centers. Although basically flat in appearance, the tile is slightly convex along its length and a raised lip under the top edge of the tile ensure that the front edge lays flat against the tiles it overlaps. The minimum roof pitch is 35 degrees. Semicircular ridge and hip tiles are bedded in lime mortar – another of Dominica’s natural resources.

Clay tiles are the most attractive of all roof coverings. Depending on the source of clay and variations in firing, their colours range from pale straw, through deep red, to blue-black. Furthermore, unlike the heat retaining properties of concrete and galvanized, a clay tiled roof is comfortable to live under.

With the advantage of a locally made product that has a life span of hundreds of years, what are the perceived disadvantages and how can they be overcome?
• At approximately 150lbs per square yard coverage, clay tiles are considerably heavier than sheets of galvanized, hence the roof needs to be made stronger. But in a hurricane strength and weight is an advantage.

• Even assuming that the tiles are made locally and that their cost is competitive to imported alternatives, due to the need for a stronger roof structure, the initial cost of a clay tiled roof will be higher. However, the lifespan of the roof will offer a saving many times over.

• Regardless for the need for additional roof timbers, the quality of imported pine will be the weak link in the chain. Increasingly, pine is cut from new growth trees and is inheritably unstable. Perhaps we should revert back to our home grown timber!

• Greater skill is required for making the roof structure and fastening the tiles. Centuries ago clay tiles were secured with wooden pegs and more recently with noncorrosive ring shank nails. My own preference is for copper wire ties. To this end we could consider recycling the defunct electricity cables that Maria left in her track.

There is not space within this commentary to delve into the centuries old skills and techniques that go into clay tile making and furthermore, its potential as an industry here in Dominica. Sufficient to say that if clay tiled roofs had been accepted as the standard practice from years ago I doubt that Maria would have left so many tarpaulins in her wake.