COMMENTARY: A revolution in roofing

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.

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  1. Greatness.
    February 9, 2018

    Great collaboration in the making here. That’s how Great Ventures are formed. DO Proceed.

  2. winston warrington
    February 6, 2018

    There should be an end product cost analysis even if the raw material is abundant on the island. Installation of clay tiles is more labor intensive than galvanized steel sheets. Apart from being fragile, the additional weight would require structural support by sturdier systems. All of the above are cost related and form part of the the evaluation in choosing the most economical efficient system.

  3. in these times
    February 6, 2018

    Paul Brown in Morne Daniel has clay roofing on his house. He didnt fare out so well. Yes it works, but it wont work the same in every situation. Ask Paul Brown.

  4. Truth Be Told
    February 6, 2018

    Great article. I made exactly this point after visiting the Pottery Village in Martinique where these roof tiles are still being made out of clay and used in Martinique and France: “Since 1783, the Pottery of Trois-Ilets has existed, making it one of the oldest companies in Martinique. The Village Pottery is located on a former Jesuit monastery established in the late 17th century. Its main activity is the work of the earth. Over the years, the Pottery of Trois-Ilets developed trades clay by combining industry (manufacturing of bricks, tiles, tiles …) and crafts (pottery terracotta). Today the Village Pottery is home to many old books and authentic Creole houses occupied by artisans, potters and traders, as well as one of the oldest brick in activity in France.”
    I did think, why is Dominica not looking to do this or import these, especially after hurricane Maria? Roger Burnett, I would be happy to go into business with you on this if you are…

    • Truth Be Told
      February 6, 2018

      Roger Burnett, I would be happy to go into business with you on this if you are interested, please indicate here and I will be in touch. I know how to contact you. God bless you and your art.

      • Roger Burnett
        February 6, 2018

        Thanks for the Martinique link. I am willing to assist any initiative that will enable Dominica to attain its potential.

  5. CIA agent
    February 6, 2018

    Thanks for the commentary Roger.
    Can these tiles be commercially obtained in Dominica?
    I’d also like to add that along with the roof structures needing to be stronger, they need to be constructed with earthquakes in mind. Plywood underlayment beneath the battens could suffice.

  6. sylvester Cadette
    February 6, 2018

    Very Interesting article indeed. Is it possible to continue in a series format on more in-depth clay roof information? Maybe continue on clay tile making techniques. Clay construction techniques (especially the areas of your know how, experience and competence).

    Is the Housing Division and the Construction industry making overtures to you for exchange of information? – they learn from you & you learn from them kind of interaction.

    I look forward to your next articles. THANKS

    • Dan the American
      February 6, 2018

      “Is the Housing Division and the Construction industry making overtures to you for exchange of information?”

      Get serious! This is a government agency you’re talking about. They won’t make this required material for new houses until everybody’s already using it.

      Roger: You, or somebody else, is going to have to start selling this product before people will start using it.

      • sylvester Cadette
        February 7, 2018

        Hi to You Dan the American. You are, for the most part correct on the above comment, that typically, “They won’t make this required material for new houses until everybody’s already using it”.

        This is why I was VERY SERIOUS in “provoking” further discussion in that direction. Most times, the best policies are driven by private sector initiating change then the policy makers create the legal, regulatory frameworks for administration and implementation of that policy. This is why I mentioned the CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY (private sector) and Housing Division (public sector). I note I did succeed in provoking discussion towards finding the best approach.

  7. kaykay
    February 6, 2018

    Once again, great article! Thanks.

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