These workers convert a flat roof to a sloped roof with clips, variable height posts, bracing, purlins and panels. Image courtesy of Chuck Howard.


Metal roofing expert Chuck Howard gives a firsthand account of his experiences - and success - selling metal roofing during the recession of the early 1980s.

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 percent range, money for new construction was nonexistent, and I had no backlog for the usually busy summer season. Sound familiar with the current economic climate? 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 an existing flat roof. While it had never been done before, this 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.

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

Take a page out of my desperation handbook 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 square feet designed 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 U.S. roofing market encompasses about 40 billion square feet per year. Of that amount, replacement and repair has accounted for approximately 75 percent of that work over the last 10 years.

That means approximately 30 billion square feet of roofs will need major work in this year.

In addition to the “adding pitch” approach, in 1991 an engineered system to cover existing metal roofs with new metal roofs was developed by Red McConnohie. He named the product 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.

Let’s look at these approaches.

A typical high school flat roof prior to a retrofit metal slope conversion. Image courtesy of Chuck Howard.

Add slope to a flat roof

This concept allows a flat, or nearly flat, roof to have 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 times without having to remove the existing flat roof. Then a variable-height steel column is attached to actually create the needed slope - only a quarter-inch per foot is required for most 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. 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.

Marketing this concept is actually very simple. The market consists of building owners that have flat roofs. Schools, manufacturing, municipal, state and federal governments have billions of square feet of flat roofs that need sloped-roof conversions. Such a conversion will pay for the cost of the roof, due to energy savings 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 often less than removing a flat roof and replacing it with a modified bitumen roof with tapered insulation. Tapered insulation is required by most code authorities to achieve roof slope levels.

The components of the framing system, roof panels, and trim are made from recycled materials and are themselves over 80 percent recyclable. In today’s world of providing “green” products and systems, a sloped metal roof is as green as green gets.

A close-up look at a new standing-seam metal roof - with additional insulation - being applied to an existing metal roof. Photo courtesy of Chuck Howard.

Re-cover an existing metal roof

This allows an existing metal roof to be re-covered with a new metal roof, without the cost and hassle of removing the original roof. A light-gauge structural member, notched to span over the original roof ribs or 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. 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.

Marketing this concept, again, is similar to adding pitch. Explain to potential customers that the metal buildings built in the 1950s through 1970s 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.

Look in the industrial parks that were constructed during that time frame for a large source of potential work.

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 often found to not meet the current code requirements for wind uplift. For metal roofs installed on pre-engineered buildings, the standard 5-foot purlin spacing often will not satisfy panel clip spacing requirements in edge and corner conditions.

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 directly benefits the building owner.

The above advantages of a retrofit metal roof were not available to me in 1981. Yet I was able to launch myself into a productive and profitable career that has not yet seen even a glimpse of the potential of this market.

You can expose building owners to the benefits of retrofit metal roofs, and watch your business grow, regardless of the economy.

Chuck Howard is a licensed professional engineer and the president of Metal Roof Consultants of Cary, N.C. Contact him at (919) 465-1762; e-mail chuck@metalroofconsultants.net; see www.metalroofconsultants.net on the Internet. Also contact the Metal Initiative at www.themetalinitiative.com for more information on the metal-retrofit market.