Advantages and disadvantages of a cedar shake roof

A look at the environmental advantages as well as disadvantages of using cedar shakes for roofing.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Sheep Dog Hollow is a 1902 farmhouse that's being restored in Connecticut. One of its first needs is a new roof.
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Compromise, although often essential for harmonious living, is not always easy. This post is about the decision to put cedar shake roof on Sheepdog Hollow and it is an ode of sorts to compromise, albeit, a grudging one.

My research made it clear that a highly reflective standing seam metal roof would be the most energy-efficient and long-lasting roofing option. And while it was not the most economical choice in the short-term, it was by far the most economical in the long-term simply because of its durability.

I can imagine generations to come gratefully looking up at that standing seam metal roof and murmuring a quiet thanks that 100 years from when it was installed, it was still keeping the house warm and dry.

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But alas, that’s not what future generations will see. No, Martin, my fiancé and partner in this project, wants a cedar shake roof, and so, in the spirit of compromise, that’s what we’re putting on.

If I had my druthers, a faux cedar shake roof made of long-lasting recycled materials like the EnviroShake brand would have been the perfect compromise. Even Bob Vila, formerly of "This Old House" fame, has featured them on his website. They cost about the same as a high-quality metal roof, have a life expectancy of about 50 years, don’t need to breathe – which means they can be applied directly to plywood – and they don’t need much maintenance.

But Martin would have none of it. “We agreed to try to retain Sheep Dog’s original appearance,” he said. “I want cedar.”

OK. So here are some of the energy and environmental benefits of a cedar shake roof:

According to the FinerLiving.net site: “One of the reasons they are popular is that they are very easy to install and look beautiful. Repairing them is also very simple and can last for 50 to 60 years if you treat them well.”

Our local roofing contractor – we’re trying to use as much local labor and resources as possible to help sustain our new community – also had some good words about cedar shakes.

“They’ve only recently started to recycle asphalt shingles, so there are millions of cubic yards in landfills around the world,” says Reid Parady of Parady & Sons in East Haddam, Conn. “With wood shakes, they either rot or, in our case, we stockpile them and shred them up and use them as chips for mulch.”

Reid also noted you can ensure that your cedar shakes come from a sustainable forest, one that’s certified by Forest Steward Council or other forest certification organizations.

And then there are the inherent benefits of cedar: It is naturally bug-resistant and also provides excellent thermal protection, even if it’s not as efficient at reflecting the sun’s rays as a metal roof.

But I keep getting hung up on the some of the drawbacks of cedar shake roofs tha are noted on the FinerLiving.net site:

“Before you make your decision about buying cedar roof shingles, it’s important that you understand that there can be quite a few disadvantages. The main problem is fire safety because they aren’t fire-proof. If you do go ahead and install them, make sure you contact your home insurance company first to see if they would put up your premium because of this. There are cedar roof shingles however that have been pressure treated with fire resistant chemicals in the factory and class B and C fire resistance rating can be achieved.

And then, of course, there is the maintenance question, which was raised on the Triple A1 Roof care site:

“If a cedar roof does not receive any maintenance it may last 10 years or more, depending on the severity of the elements. On the other hand, cedar is the only roofing material whose life can be prolonged by proper maintenance and preservation techniques. Basic cedar roof maintenance includes debris removal, cleaning to remove algae, fungi, moss, etc., and application of a wood preservative. Annual inspections keep tabs on your roof to determine when this maintenance is required, but it's usually needed every 3 to 5 years. Every 10 to 15 years, a cedar roof should be restored. The restoration process includes repairs to the roofing system, including replacement of shakes and ridge caps.”

So, we’ll go with fire-resistant and forest-certified red cedar shingles installed by a local contractor. It’s not as green or energy-efficient as I’d like, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. And Martin is happy.

But I do also plan on taking the advice posted by Amanda M in the comments section of one of last week’s blog posts: “You let him have whatever he wants up on that roof- as long as HE's the one climbing up there to patch it after his shakes start rotting off or fly away in a windstorm…!”

Next: The Rumford Fireplace: energy-efficiency lessons from the 19th century.

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut.

The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's a new URL for its Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.

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