A Brief History of Roofing - PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION

A Brief History of Roofing - AAR
August 30, 2022 at 2:13 p.m.

Editor's note: The following is the transcript of an live interview with John Kenney from Cotney Consulting Group. You can read the interview below or listen to the podcast.

Alice Reynolds:
Welcome to the Ask a Roofer podcast, a podcast for people with roofs. My name is Alice Reynolds. I'm a new homeowner.

Megan Ellsworth:
And my name is Megan Ellsworth, a roofing enthusiast, and we are with Roofers Coffee Shop.

Alice Reynolds:
We want to share the knowledge of the contractors we work with every day with home and building owners.

Megan Ellsworth:
So please join us as we talk with industry experts, roofing contractors, business owners, and more to answer all of your burning questions about the health and maintenance of your roof.

Megan Ellsworth:
Hello everyone. My name is Megan Ellsworth, here at Ask a Roofer, and we're here for another installment of the Ask a Roofer podcast. And today I have a guest host because our dear Alice is on maternity leave, bringing life into the world. So Lauren, why don't you introduce yourself really quick as our co-host today?

Lauren White:
Hi, I'm Lauren. I am the editor at Roofer's Coffee Shop, Ask a Roofer, and I'm excited to be here and learn more about the history of roofing.

Megan Ellsworth:
Yeah, me too. That was a great segue into our guest. We have John Kenney from Cotney Consulting Group. Hi John.

John Kenney:
Hi. It's glad to be here today. Everybody looks good and bright sunshine almost in the entire country today. That's a rare.

Megan Ellsworth:
Yeah, we're so excited to have you on why don't we just get started and have you introduce yourself and Cotney Consulting?

John Kenney:
Absolutely. Well, my name is John Kenney. I spent 45 years or so, I got to say so now, because as each year ticks by, it gets a little bit longer. In the roofing industry, I'm third generation roofer. My grandfather started in the roofing business in 1922, which is kind of lead into later on about why I love history so much, but I worked as a contracting side cause a lot of people like to refer and actually I say it now, cause it's easier. I started from the rooftop and worked up into the boardroom with multiple companies throughout the years. And then two years ago, co-founded Cotney Consulting Group where the main mission of working with roofing contractors on training, not so much like the workforce training, like you're seeing with NRCA, but the rest of it, estimators foreman, project manager, superintendent admin, running, working with owners and also doing business consulting on just for roofers, how to get the most out of their business.

John Kenney:
So that's where we're at today. And of course I know a lot of people follow me on LinkedIn for the historical posts and I love doing those. So you're going to see a lot more of them coming out.

Lauren White:
Wonderful. So how do you know so much about the history of roofing? How did you get into learning more about that history?

John Kenney:
Well, that's a great question. So first of all, I love history in general. So when I was younger coming up, I loved the history classes. I guess I was probably maybe an early geek because I liked history and I was really strong in math and chemistry and the sciences, even though now I do a lot of writing, believe it or not in the early days of my youth coming up, I hated English class and writing and all that kind of stuff. Till finally I realized that you have to do those things to get by in a business world. So I loved history. So really how I got really into the, what was going on in the roofing industry was when I was probably around nine, 10 years old working in the company shop, it was in Dover, New Jersey, where it was located. And we had this room which was called the nail room.

John Kenney:
So it's exactly why it was called a nail room because that's where nails and fasteners and pretty much everything else. So my job was to go in and straighten it up and organize it and count and put it in barrels the same as it was every summer, because it was a mess all the time. And I would do that and I found this stairwell back there and I went up through the stairwell to the top and I found all these boxes of files and paperwork and giveaways and stuff, calendars. They were my grandfathers and there was stuff in there from the twenties, thirties and forties, spec books. And I started really looking at that stuff and I'm like, wow, this stuff really tells a great history. I even found my grandfather's financial statements and at a nine years old, like I said at math kind of geeky, but I got into it and I learned a lot from self-studying.

John Kenney:
I'm like, wow, this is really interesting because I had stuff. When you had stuff in the twenties and thirties, you got a different perspective. Because when I was nine years, I was into, it was like a 70, 71. So that scene as a kid, as you know, that was ancient history going back that far, not so much as you get older, going back 50 years is not a big deal, but then that was ancient. I was like, there's a lot of neat stuff. What is this? I found it. What is this product for? What did they do with that? And I started getting into it, but then I started really figuring out, okay, how do I learn more and more? And I started, as I got older, I really got an interest in gathering information that kind of tells a great story of how our roofing industry has evolved.

John Kenney:
So that's really how I got into it. I just think you can anything in life. If you really study historical events and roofing is historical events, if you break it down on timelines and do it. Study your industry or study, whatever it is in history, you're going to do better. And I use a lot of these lessons that were learned throughout studying history with clients today, like productivity and efficiency, there's things that were done in the early 1900s that nobody has studied since. But if you take that and then convert it into modern issues, there's a lot of great information out there.

Megan Ellsworth:
That is so true. And you can really, like you said, put that in any industry, but especially roofing. That's so cool that you just stumbled upon it. And now look at ya. That's so cool.

John Kenney:
And also one other thing, our industry is so undocumented. It's like even the manufacturers throughout the years, if you contact them, they didn't keep anything. Everything was thrown away. New manual came out. New thing. We didn't have a lot of written knowledge of what went on. So the greatest knowledge was proposals, quotations throughout the years and the original manufacturer's literature because that really told a story. And unfortunately, a lot of that is gone. That's why I work so hard on collecting it, to be able to tell these stories and preserve it for future generations.

Megan Ellsworth:
That's cool. That's really cool. So what is your favorite piece of roofing history? This is maybe a difficult one to answer.

John Kenney:
Yeah, it is. I mean, there's a lot of things that I think some of the early, mid 1800s, early 1900s, the advertising and marketing pieces that contractors put out, I'll give you an example. I mean you would look today and be like, why would anybody do that? Back in 1800s, you didn't have heat in all the houses. So they actually heated something in the fireplace or coal and they put it in a bed warmer. So I found things where roofing contractors that been manufacturers actually gave out bed warmers with their name on it and advertising just crazy things. So what's neat is to see how it corresponds with society as society went along. So the marketing pieces really tell a story, but I say uniqueness, I will tell you two of my favorite pieces and these have been verified by our national parks commission that I got for through them is I have a piece of the original wood shake roof from George Washington's house in Virginia when they did it.

John Kenney:
So that's been all certified and I have a piece of slate from John Quincy Adams house through the national park when they did a reroof, they kept so many of them and those are things that are hard to get, but got to actually, when you ask for it, they'll sell it to you and that they were very fair about it, but it comes with all the proper documentations that it actually is off of their houses.

John Kenney:
And the other third piece. And I love this came from the same thing. It was through the park commission. It was actually off of a church out in the west, in the Arizona area, Adobe, but it was one of the early Spanish churches where the park was around where the Navajo and all that was. I think it's a Navajo Indian, I think it's like Nevada in Arizona. This building was built in the early 1600s. This was a piece of the original hand baked actual clay tile roof that was used on this church. So again, those people will be like, why would you want it? But this is great pieces of history. So you can tie, I mean George Washington and John Quincy Adams roof, I think that's pretty cool. That's kind of putting you right to the founding fathers.

Megan Ellsworth:
That's so cool. What the heck?

Lauren White:
Very cool. Wow.

John Kenney:
So I have a lot of different oddity pieces like that I really enjoy. Cause it goes along with history.

Megan Ellsworth:
Yeah. That's amazing. That's super cool.

Lauren White:
Very cool. So with that, we're talking about wood shakes and clay tiles and slate. So what types of roofing have kind of stood the test of time with your knowledge of the history of where roofing started and where we are now?

John Kenney:
So when you go back and you look at roofing, the test of time, it's interesting. I mean you have roofing pretty much from biblical times and in BC Egyptians and all the way back, all the way up to about early 1840s, pretty much didn't change very much. 1840s and on is where you come up with a modern day roofing. So when you look at that, you go back, definitely the clay tile made out of earth, local earth products. I mean, it's still used today. We still pretty much, if you ever go to, even to a modern plant, the process, isn't that much different. It's just been automated. It's still mixing of the different earth products and to make your natural clay tile, roofs. Slate was a big innovation. It's not used nearly as much today for weight constraints and other things, but a slate roof.

John Kenney:
There's still roofs in the United States here that were installed in the late 1700s. And same over in Europe, you have roofs that are two, 300 years old that are still in service. So that's definitely the test of time. Waterproofing systems, not so much, there's been a lot of things throughout the years, but you got to remember throughout this original couple millennial going backwards, your coatings actually came from out of the Egyptians, working with waterproofing when they were doing their pyramids. So when you look at how does this stuff happen? A lot of times we think somebody sat in a lab, a scientist and just, it all came about. No, it all has ancient roots when you start going back on it. So one of the things I talked about when I was at the FRSA doing the history of roofing was, and a lot of people don't know this.

John Kenney:
I didn't even know until I researched it. Granules, reflective granules. Now today were putting reflective granules and we're working on carbon capture, right? To help get the carbon out. The granules that we're working off of today to develop that, were discovered naturally. They were a blue and a red color by the ancient Egyptians. The first generation pharaohs that actually discovered this and they used it as a reflectivity. They didn't know anything about carbon capture at that time, of course, but they used it as a decorative reflectivity on a lot of their buildings. So that's what I'm saying. So we're now taking that natural occurrence that they found and using that today to hopefully develop more reflectivity and more carbon capture. So that's again, tying that into history, how we go. So I would say a lot of things like that through the test of time.

John Kenney:
Now let's jump into modern. There's no doubt that even though it is one of the worst systems to work with, and I can say that from personal experience, coal tar pitch by far, built up roof coal tar pitch is by far the most longest lasting modern roof that is ever been put in service and probably possibly could be the one that will always be the one that lasted the longest. Now, today it's different. We don't really use it as much, but I remember in my early days in here, we worked on roofs and we actually still did repair work and maintenance on roofs, coal tar pitch that were done in probably 1860s and 1870s. So these were already over a hundred years old and they were still in service in the seventies and eighties. And there's a good chance some of them might still be in service today if they continued to maintain them.

John Kenney:
So by far, that is probably the longest lasting roof system that's ever, ever been in existence. But the problem with it is whether it's naturally coal tar or it's processed through coal process, it has creosote and different chemicals and it burns your skin and your eyes. It's a horrible product to work with. I will not ever say was a great product to work with, is the worst thing I ever worked with in my entire career. And any roofer it's ever used, it will tell you tearing it off is worse than putting it on. So we've all got experience with that, but by far it's the longest lasting. So you got to give credit where credit's due.

Megan Ellsworth:
Totally. Wow. That's wild. I had no idea about the Egyptians. That's so cool. Yeah. For all you homeowners out there listening. I hope you're learning a lot because I am. This is so cool. I thought I knew at least some things about roofing history, but maybe I knew nothing in reality. So you kind of talked about this a little bit in the beginning about the bed pans, which I thought that was so interesting, but what kind of role does culture play in the history of roofing roofs? Roofing?

John Kenney:
Well, culture definitely has played a big part of history coming up culture by the materials. Let's go back to the local environment and the culture. Roofing pretty much develop worldwide based upon the cultural advances, whether you were a far advanced cultural society or whether you weren't, but as we let's fast forward now into modern times. When I say modern colonial times on up there really, and I find amazing, for example, culturally, a lot of people don't know this in the Civil War, the United States government ran out of money. There was not enough printed money or coins or available sources to do it. So manufacturers and roofing manufacturers and contractors took the lead on this and produced tokens they're called, but they were actually legal tender. And from the Civil War era, the US government actually declared those legal tender. So I have some of them in my collection that I find very unique. After the Civil War, there was a law passed in Congress that no longer could happen, but actually the roofing industry had its own currency that was legal, tender trade with the US government throughout the Civil War.

John Kenney:
So there's a cultural item there that I know a lot of people don't know. Cause I didn't know it till I stumbled upon it. But as you say, the marketing pieces, I think marketing literature and proposals. Let's look at proposals for a minute. When I find letterheads from say the 1800s up into the early 1900s, the handwriting was absolutely impeccable. You can read it. It's clear. It looks no, I wish I had handwriting like that, but that is definitely a cultural thing because people in those days, the script was absolutely perfect. They didn't have hard. You could read every bit of it. So that's cultural change. So as you go through history, I mean, now let's face it. We call it swag now. But the swag we give out today is nowhere near what it used to be. What I mean by that is actually they filled the need, whatever the people needed in the times when they gave this out from about 1850, it got popular all the way up to probably the sixties.

John Kenney:
They would give out things that really fit in to the culture. Like with homeowners, like yeah, you get a bed pan, right? You put in a roof on and bed pans and heat warmers and irons. I've seen flat irons and candle wax and all this stuff that you'd be like, why would you give that out? Well, you're giving it out because people had a need for it. You got your name out there and thermometers. That's why thermometers were so hugely given out from the early 1900s up to probably about the seventies, lighters, match book covers, all those type of things. You don't see that today. Those days. Clocks cause clocks are important. I heard an interesting story the other day that I'll share everybody here. So Barrett Company became Allied Signal in the fifties into the sixties and they actually had a program where the roofers would buy so much product a year and they gave them a train car.

John Kenney:
So the goal was after five years, if you bought enough, you got the engine. So you'd have a full train set. The person that told me this story told me that in the fifties and that they were act... In this early sixties to do this, they were fighting to sell this product because they wanted a train. What a great marketing idea that is by the manufacturer. Now the train wasn't that expensive in comparison of what you're going to sell, but things like that. I think you see today, jumping ahead, what's culturally good today? I think especially for homeowners today, manufacturers have leaned into the technology where you can see the color of your roof shingles. You can see the type of roof, you can see the siding patterns, all that you get that visual through AI and virtual reality technology. So I still think the manufacturers are continuing to evolve and it's still a culture thing because today to me, that's culture.

John Kenney:
I know, I think it's great, if I'm able to see what my house is going to look like, really get that reality through close up, like I'm standing and looking at it before I spend all the money residing, putting new windows, and a new roof. So I think culturally that's where you've seen it. We still have regional issues where certain parts of the country will install certain types of roof systems compared to other. And that's still because in that materials and availability up in the Northwest where you are, it's still Cedar shake roofing is still very big. It's still big up in Canada. You're not going to see that in the Southeast. You might find one Northeast, not so much anymore. Fire codes, different things. But as you see, that's how things have changed throughout time. It still goes with a cultural item.

Megan Ellsworth:
Wow.

Lauren White:
That's so interesting. So I know we've been talking mostly about history of roofing, but we've also kind of jumped to present day. So we're going to take it one step further. Where do you see roofing going from here? From where we're at now?

John Kenney:
Well, I'll tell you, I get excited on this one and I love whenever I get a chance to speak at different events to actually broadcast this. Truthfully I think roofing, construction in general, but roofing absolutely as a trade, has been so far behind in technology. We're catching up. We're actually embracing modern technology. We're getting there, how we run our businesses, how we manufacture, how we go to point to put a roof on. So we have a big labor issue in the country. That's not going to go away. There's no way anyone's going to wave a magic wand. It's not Harry Potter. It's not going to work that way. And all of a sudden, everybody coming through grade schools going to want to go into trades. Yes, I think we can do a better job to make that as an offering, but it's just not going to happen. That's going backwards.

John Kenney:
So where does that take us? That takes us to robotics. I think robotics absolutely going to be one of the major players in not only construction, but in roofing. So why do I think that? One is so robotics isn't just a robot humanoid running around. We're seeing our equipment now become more robotic. It's got lasers in it. It's got time, all the ways to work off of a satellite technology to work better, but you will see, lack of a better word, I'll use a sci-fi term. I think it's still a sci-fi term like a humanoid robot. You're going to see a robot that can actually move and operate the same as a human. And it's not a hundred years off. My personal prediction is you're going to see these start to hit the workforce within 10 years. You're already seeing them in other countries or spending money.

John Kenney:
And when that happens, that's going to start to solve the problem with labor. You're still going to need people to come into our industry, to be able to operate and program and run these, which I think that will open the door for today's youth to find roofing, to be a possible great career to come in. I think that's where you're going to see. The next place I see this, we're already starting to see it around the world and they're starting to use it in different parts of our country here, is 3D printing. 3D printing is a huge, you're not only going to see it for roofing, but you're going to see entire buildings put up with 3D printing, but a lot of areas that are hard to get to material, especially what we just went through. And we're still in is supply chain issues. Once this is on site with the materials you're going to print roofs, it's going to happen.

John Kenney:
So first thing to happen will be our homeowners. They're going to get it first because of the fact that it's got the pitch on it and it can look pretty and they can get any color they want, any style they want. Flat roofing will take a little bit longer if they really get that perfected because of ponding issues and other things that come in, but you're going to see it on homes. I think you'll see, you're starting to do it now, but I think you'll see that more mainstream within the next two decades as well.

John Kenney:
And then I think the third big way we're going, which we've got to adapt is an industry in a society is modular construction. It's been out there. And when I say modular, I'm not just talking about modular homes. People think of mobile homes. You're starting to see hospitals in large facilities being built in this modular where things are coming in. 99% of the work is done in the factory where they're making and it's shipped. It's put up and you work very little work done on the job site. So you have lower labor. So I think those are the three big trends that you're going to start to see within the next two to three decades. For sure.

Megan Ellsworth:
Yeah. Companies like Boxabl, also speaking of modular homes. So. Cool. Well thank you so much for talking with us today, John. Is there anything else you would like to share about roofing history to the homeowners that are listening out there?

John Kenney:
Well, I would say definitely from the homeowners, you can rest assured that residential roofing systems today are a thousand times better than they've ever been throughout history. They are made to last a lot longer. Shingles themselves are even much better than the original shingle roofs, but you have so much to choose from. You have metal, you have tile, you have so many different systems that are tried true. And I think you also, you're going to see a big move in homeowner solar coming in too. It's getting there. We're not quite there yet be patient. It's going to actually look good. It's not going to be like you ride down the road and see the old big black panels hanging all over the place. Things are going to start to be more stylish and more... I think the manufacturers are sticking to longer lasting less times to re-roof and also make it more aesthetically pleasing to a homeowner.

John Kenney:
So I think from the homeowner, you're going to see those things, which is great and help you out in your insurance and who wants to put a roof on every 10, 15 years on their home. No one does. So go for the long lasting systems that are coming out and on the market already.

Megan Ellsworth:
Yes, absolutely. And solar, let's get every roof to have solar hopefully in the next decade. That would be so awesome. Well thank you again so much, John.

John Kenney:
Thank you.

Megan Ellsworth:
This has been a blast learning all about roofing history.

Lauren White:
Yes. Thank you so much.

Megan Ellsworth:
Well, this has been the Ask a Roofer podcast. Thank you so much for listening and we will see you next time.

Megan Ellsworth:
To learn more, go to askaroofer.com and ask a question. If you have a question about your roof, it's really that simple and make sure to follow us on all social medias @askaroofer_RCS, make sure to follow us as well on your favorite streaming platform. And we'll see you next time.



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