Metal Retrofit Roofing – A Solution in a Bad Economy

It was the spring of 1981 in southern Ohio. I had a small general contracting business that specialized in pre-engineered metal buildings. Interest rates were in the 15% range, new construction money was non-existent, and I had zero back-log for the summer season. Sound familiar with the current economic climate? Having been raised by parents that continually said, “Can’t never did anything”, I was not going to concede that my business couldn’t survive.

I remembered a project I had completed a year earlier where the customer insisted that I add a sloped metal roof over his existing flat roof. While it had never been done before, this building customer was insistent that he wanted the same roof that was on a building addition I had constructed for him. After saying no several times, I agreed to attempt to design and build such a roof. Well, it worked. As a matter of fact, it is still functioning in Wilmington, Ohio today, with nothing done to it over these 29 years.

Instead of spending my day telling whomever would listen how bad the economy was, I asked my wife to hand-type (sorry, no laptops and printers then) 100 one (1) page letters to past customers explaining how we had successfully converted a flat roof to a sloped roof for our Wilmington client. I then merely asked them if there might be any interest in considering such a roof conversion on any of their flat roofs. Twenty six (26) positive responses later I was firmly immersed into a new market of providing such conversions. “Can” prevailed again.

Now “fast-forward” to the present. The economy is in an even worse condition that in the early 1980’s, and new building construction has ground to a very slow crawl. The media is full of stories of failing companies, lay-offs, recession, etc. Bidding lists for new construction show dozens of companies willing to take the work at low or non-existent profit in order to “keep our people busy”. Not a very encouraging sight, is it?

Well, remember, “Can’t never did anything”. Take a page out of my desperation hand-book almost 30 years ago when I turned to retrofitting flat roofs with sloped metal roofs. While I have made a career in this market with over 15 million SF designed and/or constructed, it is still a very small market, ready to explode. While the exact numbers are difficult to verify, most sources indicate that the US roofing market is in the 40 billion SF range per year. Of that amount, replacement and repair has accounted for approximately 75% over the last 10 years. That yields approximately 30 billion SF of roofs that need major work in 2009. Unfortunately, I cannot find a reliable source that indicates how much of that work is projected to be covered with a new sloped metal roof. Even very global estimates show this work at less than 5%, and I suspect it is much lower than that. But…..that is a good thing for an aggressive and passionate contractor!

In addition to the “adding pitch” approach, in 1991 an engineered system to cover existing metal roofs with new metal roofs was developed by a friend of mine, Red McConnohie, called Roof Hugger. This engineered system of covering even old metal roofs, added to my company’s ability to service the existing roof market of replacement and repair. Now I had two (2) bullets in my gun. Let’s look at each of these bullets separately:

Add slope to a flat roof
a. Concept – This concept allows a flat, or near flat roof, to have a slope added and a new metal standing seam roof applied. Attaching base clips or supports to the existing building’s structure is performed to transfer the roof loads properly into the structure, most time without having to remove the existing flat roof. Then a variable height steel column is attached to actually create the needed slope (only ¼” per foot is required for most metal covering warranties). A steel purlin is attached to the top of the column on which to attach the new metal roof. Think of it as a small metal building sitting on the original roof. Needless to say, these materials and the attachment to the existing structure require the services of a professional engineer licensed in the state where the work will be performed. All things listed above are currently available today to any contractor.

b. Marketing – Marketing this concept is actually very simple. Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines marketing as “to expose for sale in a market”. The following is what you have to expose:

  • The market consists of building owners that have flat roofs. Schools, manufacturing, municipal and state, and the federal government have billions of SF of flat roofs that need a sloped roof conversion. Such a conversion will pay for the cost of the roof, due to energy and lack of required flat roof maintenance, within 10 to 15 years. Can you sell a FREE roof?
  • In today’s market, the initial cost of a sloped metal roof system is, in most cases, less than removing a flat roof and replacing it with a BUR of Modified Bitumen Roof with tapered insulation. Tapered insulation is required by most code authorities to achieve a certain level of roof slope.
  • The components of the framing system, roof panels, and trim are made from recycled materials and are themselves over 80% recyclable. In today’s world of providing “green” products and systems, a sloped metal roof is as green as green gets.

B. Recover an existing metal roof
a. Concept – This concept allows an existing metal roof to be recovered with a new metal roof, without the cost and hassle of removing the original roof. A light gage structural member, notched to span over the original roof ribs/corrugations, is located directly over the building’s framing system. This member is attached to the roof purlins through the bottom flange of the member and the existing roof sheet. Now a new standing seam metal roof is attached to this new member. As with the adding pitch concept, a professional engineer needs to be retained to determine the required structural conditions. In addition to allowing for the installation of a new metal roof, the cavity between the two roofs can be used to add insulation to the building envelope.
b. Marketing – Marketing this concept, again, is similar to the adding pitch concept. The following is what needs to be exposed to potential customers:

  • The metal buildings built in the 1950’s through 1970’s predominately used through fastener roof attachments. Especially for the larger industrial and warehouse roofs, the expansion and contraction of the metal roofs either loosened the screws or elongated the holes made by the screws. Both scenarios allowed water to run down the threads of the screws and into the building. Therefore, look in the industrial parks that were constructed during that time frame for a large source of potential work.
  • This concept allows the existing roof to remain, therefore the activity inside is undisturbed.
  • The possibility of insulation being added to these buildings, that had minimal insulation installed initially, can allow the retrofit process to pay for itself quickly.
  • In today’s, market both older and more recent metal roofs are found to not meet the current code requirements for wind uplift. For metal roofs installed on pre-engineered buildings, the standard 5’-0” purlin spacing often will not satisfy panel clip spacing requirements in edge and corner conditions (refer to ASCE 7 for uplift load calculations and ASTM E-1592 for proper panel testing). In metal roofs installed over solid metal decks, the location of the panel clips is many times incorrect with respect to the uplift loads and panel capacities. Placing the new structural member properly, after proper design by a licensed engineer, can correct these deficiencies without the removal of the existing roof.
  • Of course, adding insulation to an existing roof immediately decreases the buildings energy consumption and is a direct benefit to the building owner.

The above advantages of a retrofit metal roof were not available to me in 1981. Yet, I, a small contractor who graduated in the part of my college engineering class that made the top ½ possible, proposed such a solution to 100 building owners , launching myself into a productive and profitable career that has not yet seen even a glimpse of the potential of this market. My father has proven to me that a double negative is in fact positive…..Can’t never did anything. So, convince yourself that you CAN expose building owners to the benefits of retrofit metal roofs, and watch your business grow, in any economic climate.