If you are a nerd like I am, you may have noticed that parapets are often the first masonry feature on a Chicago building to deteriorate. This could be explained by the roofing membrane (waterproofing) that is often lapped up and over the parapet.
To give you an example, here is a picture of our original parapet from 2009.
Lapping the roofing membrane up and over the parapet may make sense in terms of waterproofing the roof. But it also creates a vapor barrier on the parapet side facing the roof. The parapet can now only dry into one direction – the side facing away from the roof. And this increased vapor pressure could be the cause for an accelerated parapet deterioration. Something I recently ran into head on with our front parapet.
If I could eliminate the vapor barrier, the parapet would dry in both directions. And that was my goal.
The solution was to install a dimple mat along the inside of the parapet, and then install the roofing membrane flashing up against the dimple mat. This way I created an air gap along the inside of the masonry wall – a vent strip.
All that was left was to cut the mat flush with the parapet, after we had the dimple mat attached to the parapet and the cant strips placed at the parapet base. We were now ready to install the roofing membranes, starting with the base.
Nope, I am not trying to block the sun, but this is a good reminder that the whole roofing project was happening because we were getting ready to install a photovoltaic array on our roof. And one question to resolve was: How should we attach the solar panels to the roof?
Some systems are weight based, meaning they are not physically attached to the roof structure, but instead weighed down by concrete blocks, for example. This method has the advantage that there is no hardware that penetrates the roofing membrane. The disadvantages are that the roof needs to be able to accommodate the extra weight, and more importantly that the City of Chicago would not permit weight based systems, according to my solar installer.
We needed to come up with a solution to anchor the solar array to the roof joists.
The solar panels are mounted onto rails in rows. There is one rail towards the bottom and one towards the top of the panels. The rails in turn are mounted onto posts, which are anchored to the roof structure. There is a short post towards the front of the panel and a longer post toward the back, so that the panel faces the sun at an angle. (If you struggle with some of the terminology, go to: Solar lingo)
If you look at the plan sheet above, you can see that almost none of the posts (red dots) line up with the roof joists (dotted line going from left to right). So, anchoring the posts directly into the roof joists was not an option. Instead, we planned to indirectly anchor them. We installed and anchored three rows of blocking that was running perpendicular to the roof joists (the dotted line running from top to bottom), to which we could anchor the posts.
The blocking consisted of two two-by-fours laid long side down, stacked on top of each other, and anchored into the roof joists.
This solution had to fit into our new roofing system. That is why we used two layers of 1 ½” polyiso boards, so that the insulation would be flush with the blocking for the solar posts and ease the installation of the roofing membrane.
I had marked the layout for the solar blocking right after the roof tear off and kept track of it during the insulation installation, including where to anchor it to the roof joists. I cut and removed insulation and laid out the two-by-fours. I made sure to stagger the joints between the bottom and top row. I also made sure that no joint was over a roof joist, or at an anchoring point for the posts.
After I had the two-by-fours anchored down I foamed around the edges to keep the insulation assembly sealed.
I only had two major snafus on this project, both self-inflicted. One had to do with the roof insulation – or – to be more precise, the attic insulation.
I did an excellent job insulating the attic, first with rock wool followed by foam board. And in that process I created a cold roof deck. A cold roof deck during winter runs the risk of getting wet over the years (for more information go to: Do-over dilemma).
With the old roofing torn off, I found to my delight a bone-dry roof deck. Maybe this was an indicator that the risk of a cold and wet roof deck was marginal, but nevertheless I’m glad I made the decision to sandwich the roof deck between layers of insulation (rock wool below and foam board on top) to keep it warm.
What type of insulation to use?
I used a fair amount of salvaged extruded polystyrene insulation (XPS) on the project and thought of using it on the roof too. But my roofer, Pablo, balked at that idea. I quickly realized that all the roof insulation I ever saw was polyisocyanurate insulation boards (or polyiso in short). And there is a good reason.
Although I didn’t find any independent publications, articles from the roofing industry and manufacturer associations indicate that polyiso is fairly fire resistant and does not melt and drip like polystyrene. That is a rather important factor, considering that we planned to install a modified bitumen roofing system, also known as torch-down roof. And as the name suggests, it involves a torch and heat. So having fire resistant insulation boards is – let’s say – imperative.
The downside of polyiso insulation is its cold weather performance. To quote Martin Holladay from Green Building Advisor:
“At temperatures below 50°F, polyiso performs worse than it does at a mean temperature of 75°F”
And what does that mean? In warm conditions, polyiso outperforms XPS insulation. Under cold conditions, polyiso is about on par with XPS (R-value of 5 per inch). And under very cold conditions, it may drop below an R-value of 5 per inch.
When I was sitting at the roofing material supplier to order the materials for our project, the price for the polyiso boards was less than I expected, which made me suspicious. After combing through the material specifications, I realized that the boards in questions had a cardboard based facer.
Unlike XPS or expanded polystyrene (EPS) insulation, polyiso always comes with a facer on both sides. The facers contain the foam core during the production.
Having a cardboard facer, which runs the risk of disintegrating or deforming when it comes into contact with moisture, was not acceptable in a roofing situation. And the potential flammability of a cardboard backing may negate the fire resistance the polyisocyanurate provides. A fiberglass facer would be the material of choice. Slightly more expensive and a special order item (because most roofers don’t want to spend the extra money), but moisture resistant, dimensionally stable and safer.
We installed two layers of 1 ½ inch polyiso boards across the roof. I did pick 1 ½ inch boards because they fit with the solar blocking, but more about that in a later post.
To maximize the thermal performance, we staggered the joints of each layer. The polyiso boards, like most materials, expand and contract with rising or falling temperatures. When contracting, the tight butt joints may morph into a slight gap, which would allow thermal energy to escape. By staggering the joints, I have at least another layer of foam board over that gap that would slow that escape.
We fastened the boards mechanically to the roof deck so that they don’t blow away and are a solid foundation to which we can adhere the roofing system. To do so, we used long insulation screws with insulation washers.
We have, what you would call, a typical low slope roof. What is not so typical is that the bottom of the slope is blocked for about 12 feet by our staircase extension. To prevent water from ponding up against the extension, we added some tapered insulation to add a slope that would allow for positive drainage.
It was nice that our roofing crew took care of the roof tear off. That gave me the space and time to focus on the little side projects, like the roofing vents.
Let’s start with the main roofing vent, or the main drain-waste-vent (DWV) stack, if you want to call it that. It services the laundry room, main bathrooms, and kitchens.
Back in 2011 we decided to slightly rearrange the bathrooms. That meant we had to move the main vent stack over by about four feet in the plumbing wall.
Rather than punching a new hole into the roof to surface the vent stack, I put a kick into the stack right under the roof so that I could surface it through the existing hole of the old vent stack.
That was meant as a temporary solution, and now was the time to discharge the temporary and build the permanent.
With the roof torn off, it was easy to cut out the temporary stack. We abandoned the awkward kick right under the roof and filled it with insulation. We cut a new hole that was centered right over the main DWV stack and reconnected it. This way the stack runs in a straight line from the basement slab to the roof – the way it should be.
And then there was the need for a whole new vent stack, which services the 2nd bathroom on the 1st and 2nd floors. We again cut a hole that was centered right over the stack and connected it.
These are the kind of connections you want to do while you are re-roofing. This way the roof penetrations become part of the waterproofing system, rather than another patch to your roof.
When we bought our building in 2009, our roof got a clean bill of health by the inspector. It had a fairly new membrane that was estimated to be good for another five to 10 years. And it was.
But the most recent membrane was not the only one that had been installed on the roof. In fact, there were seemingly endless layers of membranes and other roofing systems that had been installed on our roof over the last century, probably going all the way back to the very first roofing system in 1902.
It amounted to a roofing system sandwich of about two and a half to three inches. The weight of all this roofing material was considerable. Rather than adding another layer to it, it was time to tear off all those layers, take off the weight, and have a fresh start with a new roofing system.
Removing the two and a half to three inches of roofing amounts to about 12 to 14 cubic yards of waste. In preparation, our roofer, Pablo, organized two 10 yard dumpsters and a trash chute.
The trash chute was important to me, because it prevents the waste from flying all over the place on its way down from the roof.
The tear off had to happen rather fast. You don’t want to be in the middle of a roofing project and have rain storms moving through. Ideally you get the tear off started and the new system finished while the dry weather lasts.
Pablo arrived at 7 am with his crew and a selection of brute force tools. By noon, all the layers of the old system were gone and in the dumpsters. We were down to the original roof deck, which was old 7/8 inch pine boards.
To my great relief, the boards were in excellent condition, except for one spot that had water infiltration at one point. I noticed the damaged boards when I installed the insulation under the roof deck. So we were prepared, and removed and replaced the damaged boards.