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What’s the Deal With Roof Tiles and Shingles?

Roof tiles are like shingles’ cooler, more popular, more glamorous older sister. But, little shingle, don’t frown! You are a wondrous thing.

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

Each week, Architizer is highlighting a different building product and how to specify it. This week’s topic is roof tiles and shingles. If you’re looking for the perfect roof tile or shingle for your next project, search for it on Architizer’s new network marketplace for building products. Click here to join our waitlist. It’s free for architects.

Shingles get a bad rap. When you think of them, you probably think of a sea of little flat black squares covering the roof of a McMansion. When you google them, you probably get something worse (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Roof tiles, on the other hand, well, they’re like shingles’ cooler, more popular older sister.

You can imagine shingles coming home from a long day at school complaining that roof tiles have all the friends. All the fancy architects pick roof tiles. Ancient Greeks developed roof tiles to cover their most important buildings. Roof tiles are elegant, sustainable, locally sourced, have a long lifespan, are made of fancy materials like terra-cotta and slate … Roof tiles have all the fun!

Roof tiles of the new Trinity College building by Aires Mateus amid historic tiled-covered buildings in Coimbra, Portugal

And in a certain sense, that’s true. Shingles and roof tiles perform basically the same function — both shingles and roof tiles are mainly used to shed water off a building — but roof tiles have been around for centuries and are still usually preferred in high-end design. Tiles are usually made out of more durable materials, like stone, and generally last longer than shingles, which are typically wood or fiberglass. But, little shingle, don’t frown! You are a wondrous thing.

Left: the Low House by McKim, Mead & White, an exemplar of the Shingle Style, image via WTTW; right: Martin Lancaster House, a modern shingle-clad house by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, image via freshome

For centuries, wood shingles have covered buildings around the world, at one point becoming so popular as both roofing and cladding in America that an entire architectural genre, the aptly named Shingle Style, was built around them.

Clover House, a contemporary home clad in asphalt shingles by MAD

The technology behind the modern fiberglass shingle is even responsible for the flat roofs of modernism. Around 1840, industrial innovators soaked rolls of felt in coal tar and then coated those sheets with a layer of sand or broken shells. This tough, waterproof membrane could be used to cover gently sloped roofs even in very wet climates.

Over the past two hundred years, this technology has stayed essentially the same, although these days, fiberglass is used as the substrate, asphalt provides the waterproofing and ceramic granules make the grit. The typical modern asphalt shingle is usually made of strips of this material, the bottom of which has an adhesive to keep water from leaking through the layers.

Asphalt shingles are typically attached to a vapor membrane over roof decking. Left: image via Roofing Calculator; right: image via InterNACHI

These modern shingle systems are much cheaper than stone or terra-cotta tiles, and asphalt singles have come to dominate new construction in many parts of the world. But traditional tiles are still used for that bit of panache they add to a special building, and there are a variety of high-quality products available in traditional and contemporary styles. Shingles are getting a bit of a face-lift, as well, as companies like Tesla and Dow make headlines with new solar panels that look basically the same as traditional products.

Tesla’s line of solar shingles

Throughout the week, we’ll publish articles that look at how to detail and specify roof tiles and shingles, deep-dive into new buildings that use them in creative ways and look at the future of the industry. Stay tuned and happy building!


Having a nightmare specifying the ideal roof tiles or shingles for your latest project? Save time, money and your sanity by searching on Source, our new online marketplace for building products. Click here to sign up for the waitlist now.

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