Green roofs: These shakes from DaVinci are made from post-industrial rubber & plastic.
Green roofs: These shakes from DaVinci are made from post-industrial rubber & plastic.

When Western Massachusetts roofing and siding contractor David Miner set up his booth at a Springfield home show in March, he handed out literature on synthetic slate roofing. It was a big hit, with lots of homeowners wanting to know more about the product.

As building and remodeling rebounds, affluent homeowners are raising the bar on aesthetics, and that’s good news for makers of synthetic slates and shakes.

Though manufacturers estimate that synthetics currently make up just 1% to 2% of the residential roofing market, growth has been in the double digits in recent years. The strongest demand is where natural slates or shakes are common, but the market certainly isn’t limited to those areas. You’re unlikely to see these products on a $200,000 home, but they make a lot of sense for the $400,000-plus price range where the roof can account for a quarter to a third of the facade.

“It’s a great way to add curb appeal,” says Jonathan Wierengo, Tapco Group’s vice president of marketing. “Offering these products also helps dealers and roofers to differentiate themselves.”

“I can give my customers a product that looks like real slate for half the price,” Miner says—and that helps him stand out from his competitors. Synthetics also offer something that traditional materials don’t: color choice.

Unlike natural slates, which come in limited hues, synthetics can be made in nearly any color. “The biggest change has been the growing number of styles and colors,” says Mark Hansen, DaVinci’s vice president of sales. “We have 49 standard colors, and buyers can mix them to make their own blends.” He says that the company’s biggest selling color is “Custom.”

Colors can even be engineered with properties that are impossible with natural material. For instance, Tapco makes a dark tile that reflects heat. “We have deep engineering knowledge on how polymers react with sunlight,” Wierengo says. “We’ve had roofers using [dark reflective tiles] in 95-degree heat, when it’s impossible to work with asphalt.”

Performance Benefits

While aesthetics are these products’ biggest draw, other advantages—such as service life—also click with consumers. Recycled content is a plus for green buyers, but not all companies offer it. Ply Gem just entered the market with a 100% recycled offering, and EcoStar offers shingles with 80% and 25% recycled content (from post-industrial diaper scraps, of all things).

DaVinci and Tapco, on the other hand, use virgin materials for their shingles, saying it allows better quality control. According to DaVinci’s Hansen, this lets them manufacture tiles that have a more uniform look. Charlie Taft, EcoStar’s VP of sales, counters that the slight color variations in recycled shingles are preferred by the company’s customers.

Other selling points include wind resistance (up to 110 mph sustained), fire resistance (Class A and C available), the fact that the shingles won’t absorb water and then freeze and crack, and the ability to withstand impacts without damage.

Brian Stearns, who co-authored an industry reference titled The Slate Book, says that a natural slate roof will average a cracked tile or two every year, especially in areas prone to weather-related damage. He says that the liability caused by pieces of stone falling off the roof is leading some owners of commercial buildings to opt for synthetics.

In fact, the most effective time to introduce these products may be after nature batters an area. Buyers are much more receptive after a hailstorm blows through and damaging lots of roofs, says Zach Stopyro, a DaVinci technical services manager.

Selling Performance

Roofing contractors are also concerned about installation. Stopyro, who has trained contractors around the country, says that they appreciate the products’ light weight: 180 pounds-per-square versus 700 for slate and 200 to 300 for asphalt, fiberglass, or wood. And there’s less waste than with other products: 2% to 3%, compared with 15% for slate or shakes. “Not only does it help keep costs down, but there’s less weight to move around and less cleanup,” Stopyro says.

Another big hook for dealers is that there’s no need to carry inventory; they need only display a rack of samples. In fact, manufacturers prefer to ship as needed because of the number of color blend options. “Our lead time is 10 business days, so the contractor can have the product on site two weeks after ordering,” Wierengo says.

Dealers who carry synthetic roofing will want to stock enough of the right companion products. The shingles’ long service life means that the rest of the roofing system needs to last just as long. That means stocking stainless steel ring shank nails rather than galvanized, and synthetic underlayments rather than 30-pound felt.

And in the northern part of the country, it’s important not to forget snow guards. Miner has found that snow slides off synthetics much faster than it does an asphalt or natural slate roof. Stearns, who now owns Alpine Snow Guards, in Stowe, Vt., recommends at least 12 guards per square of roof.

Installation Tips

Shingle installation is simple, though there are things that the roofer needs to keep in mind. For example: synthetic shingles tend to be slippery when wet; nails shouldn’t be overdriven; and the roofer shouldn’t use red chalk for course lines (it may permanently stain the tiles). Shingles are cut and snapped with a utility knife, but Miner has found the snapping part to be difficult in cold weather and, he points out, you can’t use woven valleys with these products—he uses copper instead.

While any professional roofing contractor should be able to install these synthetic products, many opt for manufacturer-sponsored training.

“We’ve trained people in the dealer’s store, at the contractor’s shop, and on their job,” Stopyro says. “It takes a half-day to a day.” EcoStar even extends its warranty to include labor if the roof was installed by a company-trained contractor.