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From the Ground Up: Roofing and Siding

This Old House general contractor Tom Silva shows how he installs roofing and siding to keep a house buttoned up and dry.

Illustration by Ian Worpole

Nothing is as important to the look of a house as roofing and siding. Take two identical wood-frame houses, for example. Finish one in white clapboard with a cedar shake roof and the other in pink stucco with a clay tile roof, and you've made some major—and very different—aesthetic statements.

But there's more to these choices than appearances. Roofing and siding are also a house's first line of defense against the weather. That's why the materials have to be durable, properly installed, and well maintained. Traditional options—wood, brick, stone, and stucco for walls; cedar, slate, and tile for roofs—are time-tested and good-looking. They're also pricey. So in recent decades they've been joined by man-made look-alikes that cost less and don't need as much upkeep.

"You used to have to choose between low-maintenance and nice-looking," says Tom Silva, This Old House general contractor. "Today you can have both." Read on for Tom's installation techniques and a look at the next generation of roofing and siding products.

A Many-Layered Thing

No roofing or siding material by itself is a perfect barrier against the elements. So before the outer skin goes on, Tom Silva protects all the vulnerable areas — the corners and edges — with sticky strips of waterproofing membrane. Then he tops everything with layers of builder's felt, a thick, asphalt-impregnated paper.

What, No Housewrap?

The plastic housewrap under the siding of most new houses or additions is meant to stop wind and water. But Tom uses the old (and much cheaper) materials — builder's felt or rosin paper — because he prefers to insulate with spray foam. "There's no air or moisture passage to worry about," he says. And always, whether over felt, paper, or a wrap, Tom tacks up drainage strips before he hangs wood siding. "It needs an air space behind so it can dry out."

Roofing and Siding Materials

Peel-and-Stick Flashing

Of all the new building materials that Tom has seen in the past 25 years, he's embraced none more enthusiastically than self-adhesive waterproofing membrane. This peel-and-stick high-tech tar is impervious to water and literally seals itself around any fasteners that penetrate it. The membrane also sticks tenaciously to itself, so installation can be tricky. "We learned not to install it in the wind," Tom says. Tough as it is, the membrane does have an Achilles' heel—sunlight—so it must always be covered with siding, roofing, or metal flashing.

Cement Siding

Fiber-cement siding is virtually indistinguishable from painted wood, yet it never rots, won't burn, extends the life of a paint job, and is warranted for 50 years. And the price—about $3 per square foot, installed and painted—is slightly less than that of most wood clapboard. The siding, a mix of cement, cellulose fiber, and sand, was used on the Billerica TV project house. Tom was impressed. "It looks really nice," he says.

Plastic Trim

Cellular PVC, an extrusion of solid vinyl whipped full of tiny bubbles, can be cut, routed, nailed, and painted just like real wood. In fact, it does everything wood does—except rot, check, warp, or fade. Tom used it on the outside of the Concord cottage project, and even Norm Abram was hard pressed to tell that it wasn't painted wood.

Illustration by Ian Worpole

What's New

Shingle Panels

Factory-assembled panels shortcut the painstaking (and expensive) process of installing sidewall shingles the old-fashioned way: one at a time. Tom used the 2-by-8-foot plywood-backed panels to re-side the barn at the Milton project and estimates that they went up three times faster. The new Cedar Panel from Maibec uses Home Slicker, a yellow mat that creates an air space so wood shingles dry out faster. (The mat is sold separately in lumberyards.) For the ultimate in time saving, order the panels prestained.

Solar-Powered Roofing

Rising electric rates are spurring interest in power-generating roofing shingles. Place enough of them on a south-facing roof and they will significantly reduce a home's electrical demand. Available in rigid "slates" (shown here) that produce 920 watts per 100 sq. ft., or flexible shingles (600 watts per 100 sq. ft.). The technology isn't cheap—120 a square foot for rigid, $50 for flexible—but imagine the delight of watching your electricity bills plummet.

Solid-core Vinyl Siding

A big knock on vinyl has been its hollow, concave look and flimsy feel. Now a new type of vinyl siding features a solid foam backing, which makes the panel stiffer and more impact resistant. It also allows more style options, such as wider exposures for each "clapboard" (up to 7 inches). Best of all, the siding has four times the insulation value of regular vinyl installed over a standard insulating backer board.

<p>Peel-and-stick flashing</p>

Peel-and-stick flashing

Photo by Kolin Smith

Where to Find It

Peel-and-Stick flashing:

Grace Ice & Water Shield

Grace Construction Products

Cambridge, MA


Shingle panels:

The Cedar Panel

Maibec Industries, Inc.

Quebec City, Canada


Home Slicker

Benjamin Obdyke Incorporated

Horsham, PA


Cement siding:

HardiPlank by James Hardie

Mission Viejo, CA


Plastic Trim:

Azek Trimboards


Solar-powered roofing:

Uni-Solar, United Solar Ovanic

Atlantis Energy Systems, Inc.

Sacramento, CA


Solid-core vinyl siding:

Crane Performance Siding

Columbus, OH


For further information —

NAHB Research Center

Upper Marlboro, MD


National Roofing Contractors Association

Rosemont, IL


Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Assocation

Washington, D.C.


Cedar Shake And Shingle Bureau

Sumas, WA