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Why architects are touting metal roofs for urban dwellers

Architects are drawn to metal roofs’ ability to complement their creations modernist sensibility.

Thomas McConnell

Metal roofs have long been seen on rural buildings thanks to their practical advantages for country living. They're long-lasting and much easier to use than shingles when covering large surfaces, like the top of an equipment shed.

But they are now also fashionable among architects and builders who are drawn to them for their environmental benefits and ability to complement the modernist sensibility of their creations. Metal roofs were a prominent part of the Toronto Fall Home Show earlier this month, a clear sign of the material's migration from rural to urban. Their popularity has been growing for several years for architects, who say metal is an ideal way to showcase a part of a dwelling that is often treated as a design afterthought.

"The roof is really the fifth façade of the house, especially when you're considering it as a pitched roof," says Meg Graham, a principal architect at superkül, a Toronto-based architecture firm that has used metal roofs in several projects, including a cottage on Georgian Bay with a standing seam metal roof and a monochromatic grey house in Toronto's Kensington Market, where a corrugated steel roof was used to add texture.

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"You can't leave the roof out of the design," Graham says.

Metal roofs are often touted as the environmentally friendly choice, and for good reason: They typically last 50 years or more, double the lifespan of asphalt shingles, and are made from mostly recyclable materials, whereas asphalt shingles wind up in a landfill.

Growing numbers of people are opting for metal roofs not only because of their green-friendly cred, but because the material has evolved stylistically, says Steve Fox, general manager of the Canadian Sheet Steel Building Institute, a Cambridge, Ont.-based industry association.

"The benefits of steel roofing are durability and looks. New products coming on the market look like shingles, and there are new products like paint coatings. … There's a lot more variety now, and people are seeing the merits of it," he says.

While there are metal roofs that mimic traditional shingles, the most striking uses of the material are the ones that aren't trying to pretend to be something else, but instead announce themselves for what they are, especially standing seam metal roofs, which feature continuous panels that run from the top of the roof down to the eaves, with seams between then connected by fasteners.

Joseph Eisner, a New York-based architect, incorporated a standing seam metal roof in the design of a home in the Hamptons he completed in 2009.

"In modern architecture [a standing seam metal roof] allows it all to kind of read more uniformly," Eisner says.

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Heather McKinney, one of the principals at McKinney York Architects, a firm in Austin, Tex., has used standing seam metal roofs in several residential projects.

"It's a very crisp form, and you can't get that with shingles," she says. For one residential project completed several years ago, the firm used a dark standing seam metal roof to contrast against the cream limestone of the exterior walls.

As much as 25 per cent more than traditional shingles, the cost for a standing seam metal roof is often a deterrent, says Michael Upshall, founder of ProBuilt by Michael Upshall, a custom renovation and home builder based in the Greater Toronto Area.

"As soon as people start seeing the numbers that come in for it they usually nix it and get their granite countertops instead," he says.

Mostly, Upshall uses it as an accent. "Where it really lends itself well," he says, is incorporating it in a large roof, where "we're trying to break up that all-shingles in-your-face type of look."

More architects are using metal roofs not just for their striking appearance, but also for their ability to convey the design ideas that inform the entire house, McKinney says.

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"The roof form can be so striking, so sharp, so articulated, particularly in a modern house," she says. "You are looking for that roof to really a lot of times carry the message."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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