What's right with the roofing industry

NRCA's executive vice president reports some good news

No contractor member ever writes, calls or e-mails NRCA to tell us he has finished a job on time and within budget with no problems. No contractor member ever calls to report the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspected his job and found no violations. No manufacturer ever calls to say his plants are running efficiently with on-time deliveries and raw-material costs lower than expected. And no building owner ever calls to report he is happy with his roof system and just thought we ought to know.

Instead, we hear from roofing contractors when jobs are stopped, specifications are unclear or disputes arise. We hear from manufacturers when they believe Professional Roofing's articles or our technical bulletins are unfair. And we hear from building owners when they have complaints. But we expect to address problems daily. Because of this, we too often lose sight of the bigger picture. (And come to think of it, I expect we are not too different from most industry professionals in that regard.)

But if we are able to pause, step back and look at the roofing industry from, say, a 20-year perspective, we see some interesting things. Consider the following industry advancements.

A better-educated industry

Since its inception in 1979, the Roofing Industry Educational Institute (RIEI) has trained thousands of contractors, manufacturers, building owners and consultants about issues the roofing industry paid little attention to before RIEI was formed.

Designers who have been through RIEI programs, for example, now understand the importance of a roof system's wind-uplift resistance and how to calculate it; they know why edge details are critical; and they understand insulation's important role in roof system performance.

Building owners have a better understanding of the long-term nature of their roof systems as evidenced by the increasing number of maintenance programs developed in the industry. Owners have learned that good roof systems save energy. And they are beginning to understand roof systems also can contribute positively to the environment.

Roofing contractors have been trained in matters pertaining to wind and fire resistance and building codes, and they have a better understanding of the requirements they often are expected to meet. Most contractors have had to learn how to apply a wide array of materials according to manufacturers' requirements that often differ even within similar product categories.

In the steep-slope roofing market, the industry has made a significant transition from traditional three-tab organic shingles to laminated shingles and learned how to install both products—without incident. Most professional contractors, in short, know how to correctly install roof systems.

Also, consider the number of ways training now is delivered in our industry. NRCA, of course, has its own programs, and RIEI continues to operate, albeit on a more limited scale. Virtually every major roofing material manufacturer also offers training programs for its contractor customers (and often for its distributor and consultant customers) that include not only application methods but sales, marketing and business-management techniques, as well.

The Roof Consultants Institute (RCI) offers a wide variety of educational programs, many of which form part of its certification program. Distributors provide training—often in the evenings or on weekends. And the 86 North American contractor associations affiliated with NRCA also are in the business of training—some through structured union apprenticeship programs and others through regularly scheduled educational programs. The International Roofers Union now represents about 20,000 workers, and in many of its locations, it offers exceptional three- or four-year apprenticeship programs.

Educational opportunities are available in the industry like never before, and the industry now can document the results.

Consistently excellent products

Ask any contractor, manufacturer, distributor or roof consultant whether he believes he can design a roof system that will last at least 25 years with proper maintenance. Every one will answer "sure" because they are confident currently available materials will last at least 25 years when properly designed, installed and maintained.

What gets in roofing professionals' way, then? Well, cost, of course, and competitive pressures. It is much easier to design and install a great roof system with no budget constraints than it is with a limited budget.

The unscrupulous also get in the way. The industry still has far too many roofing contractors who operate on a cash basis without insurance and discredit thousands of professional contractors. Cost-cutting in the manufacturing process also can be a problem, as can improper or lazy design.

Twenty years ago, the low-slope roofing industry was transforming itself from an industry reliant on built-up roofing (BUR) to one that would see the introduction and widespread use of such diverse products as EPDM; PVC; spray polyurethane foam; metal; and, most recently, TPO. Each of these products has gone through a growth cycle, which you would expect. And each has shown it can perform for a long time—given, of course, proper design, application and care.

A more cohesive industry

Twenty years ago, NRCA was an association of a few more than 2,000 members, most of which were large BUR contracting companies. Currently, NRCA's 5,000 members include contractors who install all roof system types for low- and steep-slope applications. Half of NRCA's contractor members have annual sales of less than $1 million, and 70 percent install steep-slope roof systems. Members operate in all 50 states and 53 countries and truly are representative of roofing professionals.

But the industry's ability to form professional alliances extends well beyond NRCA. Manufacturers have several effective organizations, such as the Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association (ARMA), Metal Construction Association, Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association (PIMA), Roof Coatings Manufacturers Association, Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance and SPRI. The ongoing interaction among NRCA and these groups—and among these groups themselves—has allowed for some remarkable progress on a number of fronts.

For instance, NRCA and PIMA have created a first-class energy calculation program. NRCA and SPRI have produced a single-ply repair manual. And NRCA and ARMA have produced quality-control documents for asphalt roofing products.

In addition, RCI has emerged as a strong, influential association with membership approaching 2,000. Consultants play a vital role in the industry, and their efforts to improve education, training and design increasingly are evident.

And NRCA's affiliate associations create a communications network that is second to none. When issues arise at state, local or regional levels, the industry is able to quickly and effectively mobilize in ways that never were possible before.

An example of how the industry's organization can coalesce happened in December 2001 when hundreds of contractors in California received "notices of intent to sue" under the state's Proposition 65. Proposition 65 requires the state to maintain a list of "hazardous" materials and employers who use those materials to go through an extensive notification procedure. Some chemicals found in asphalt are included on the state's list (significantly, neither asphalt nor asphalt fumes appears on the list), and a California attorney issued the notices. If the attorney were to prevail, the contractors would have individual exposure and the industry as a whole would suffer a significant setback.

In response to this action, a coalition almost immediately was formed and included NRCA, ARMA, the International Roofers Union and about eight California contractor associations. The coalition agreed to a funding plan, hired an expert attorney and began a yearlong process that has promise for a reasonable conclusion. Were there no established lines of communication, the situation could have proved disastrous for the entire industry.

An accumulation of knowledge

Although coalitions have advanced the industry, information also has helped. Information about designing and installing roof systems readily is available, and the quality of information is better than ever.

At NRCA, of course, we think information begins with The NRCA Roofing and Waterproofing Manual, but there certainly is much more.

There is an abundance of product-specific information from every manufacturer. There are manuals available about roof system repair, inspection and maintenance. There is technical information that has been presented at industry conferences and symposia. And there are all sorts of application training materials for entry-level and experienced roofing workers. An incredible amount of this knowledge is available online and for the asking.

What's left

Now, don't get me wrong. The industry is a long way from perfect, and all these initiatives must be sustained to continue the success.

The industry must do a better job of delivering training at the local level—even at the individual company level. The industry's research has resulted in two crucial findings: field supervisors (foremen) are vital to any successful contractor—they affect not only application but safety, as well—and entry-level roofing workers need training and attention if they are expected to stay with contracting companies. Both these findings suggest more and better training is needed—from day one—and training must be available to and affordable for every contractor who wants it.

The industry must not give up on research and development. During periods of economic slowdown and consolidation, it always is tempting for manufacturers to reduce research and development budgets and staffs. And some of that has happened in our industry. Part of the industry's 20-year success story is that professionals are using innovative products that were created in manufacturers' research labs.

The industry also needs to improve its safety record, especially if those in the industry want to attract and retain top-quality roofing workers. Improvements have been made in a number of areas, but too many falls, burns and sprains still occur. Simply complying with OSHA isn't the complete answer either; constant vigilance and new approaches also are needed.

The industry must move forward with an effort to arrive at meaningful roof system standards. The current NRCA initiative to establish performance standards is, we believe, a necessary step—but it only will come about if all industry segments agree to make it happen.

And finally, the industry must continue to develop partnerships among the contractor, manufacturer, distributor and consulting communities.

Each plays a vital role in satisfying the industry's end users—homeowners and building owners.

We in this industry are guilty of learning the same lessons over and over again. Products brought to market too quickly can fail. Untrained field workers can make costly mistakes. Undereducated designers can cause serious problems. And building owners looking for quick, cheap fixes can and will be disappointed in the long term.

Still, industry professionals have learned a lot in the recent past. They know what it takes to build good roof systems. They know how to work together to make that happen. And they have the infrastructure in the industry to deliver what they know.

There is much that is right about this industry—and I hope that thought never gets lost amidst the everyday headaches, conflicts and challenges.

William Good is NRCA's executive vice president.


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