Photo courtesy of TAMKO
While low-slope roofing has experienced a renaissance of exotic materials over the last 30 years, the high-slope market produced only a handful of alternatives with modest results-until recently. It seems that after gutter guards, the second most popular products at the recent International Roofing Exposition in Orlando were alternative roofing shingles and shakes that mimic slate or wood. Major roofing manufacturers have brought products online and those 50-year transferable warranties don't seem so unreasonable.

With chiseled ends and beaver tail profiles, the products are a great imitation and have excellent properties. Companies as diverse as TAMKO and Carlisle are rolling out products to get an early jump on what promises to be a growing market. While past alternatives have been down this road before, a convergence of market forces may be enough to make rubber shingles a top choice among savvy homeowners.

Rise Above

Shingle manufacturers are running at full speed, hurricane and hail season are coming, and there's a whole lot of roofing to be done. Laminated shingles have been a remarkable success, so much so that their superior look and performance have almost made them a commodity. Rather than engage in another race to the bottom, some manufacturers are branching out with alternative products that mimic natural materials. All of these factors contribute to a golden opportunity for products made from rubber, plastic and wood fibers that look and perform like the real thing.

TAMKO, an asphalt roofing manufacturer based in Joplin, MO, introduced Lamarite Slate Composite Shingles in early 2004 after some test installations. Neil Robinson, creative director of marketing, says that the company is responding to consumer demand for something more elegant. "We feel like the consumer is wanting to rise above the laminated shingle. There seems to be a trend in that direction," he says. "It was something with the potential to grow our business and offer a variety of products to our customers."

The company, which also produces metal shingles, is focusing on addressing the growing role that homeowners are playing in product selection. By offering customers a range of choices, TAMKO is bound to have something that registers and the venerable look of slate is one that is familiar to more sophisticated consumers. The notched edges and staggered widths make an impressive substitute that is also a dream for roofing contractors. It can be cut with a razor, installers can walk on it, and features like spacer tabs and starter courses will ease installation.

The mineral composite product comes with a 50-year warranty and a Class A and Class 4 ratings from UL, plus Miami-Dade County approval. The product uses virgin materials manufactured at a company division that makes composite decking materials. The central location puts Lamarite within striking distance of the lucrative Sunbelt market, however the early success of the product could push forward plans to increase capacity. "We're not going to be afraid to expand if we need to," says Robinson.

"We are finding a lot of emphasis in the historic market and the historic neighborhoods," says Heidi Ellsworth, marketing director for EcoStar, Mundelein, Ill. "They're looking for a premium product with a long life span."

EcoStar's product was first developed in Canada in 1990 using recycled rubber and plastic. After both the company and product went through some changes, Carlisle SynTec Inc., Carlisle, Pa., purchased EcoStar in 2001. Majestic Slate Tile is a combination of EPDM and TPO, two products with which the single-ply giant has vast expertise. Already, the consumer preferences are driving the products as the company has expanded the styles to imitate cedar shakes and large Italian tiles. Architects and builders are courted as well, but Ellsworth admits that getting into historic projects can mean winning one community at a time.

The EcoStar product carries UL Class A and Class 4 ratings; Miami-Dade County approval is being pursued. Carlisle is targeting the entire chain of command for high-end residential projects. That can mean promoting the light weight to structural engineers, the appearance and performance to architects and the reduced waste to installers. The company that helped build EPDM roofing into a mainstay looks forward to turn a commodity into a premium.

"Homeowners want a certain look," says Ellsworth, adding that the green factor can't be overlooked. "One of the benefits that helps it is that it's recycled."

Photo courtesy of EcoStar

Target Rich

Royal Building Products in Woodbridge, Ontario, has been marketing Dura Slate for 10 years. It was the first entry into the roofing market for the siding manufacturer founded in 1972. The company already had distribution channels through building suppliers like ABC and believed there was a market for a 100 percent recycled product that can cost half as much as slate.

"It was a logical fit for the company," says Marty McDonnell, senior products manager for Royal Building Products. "Initially we were only after slate. People looked at the product from an aesthetic viewpoint and we began to install in new construction."

All shingles are produced at its Canadian plant, but the company also has a warehouse in Tennessee so shipping is not a big constraint for the premium product. The company evolved its niche strategy and pursued a broader market, yet it was a new experience for some distributors outside of the roofing industry. "The channels to market for the product are extremely important," says McDonnell. "There are distributors out there who don't sell premium roofing products. They just don't know how to up sell."

The product comes with a 50-year prorated warranty on materials and labor, but McDonnell believes that both the product's appearance and performance matters most, particularly with homeowners who have done some research. He says more and more women are becoming the decision makers for home products and have definite ideas about appearance. For those that have experienced a roof replacement, their inquires can also involve a lengthy discussion on hail.

Hail was a consideration when Dura Slate entered the market, says McDonnell, but it was only after the company penetrated Texas in 1999 that it fully appreciated the UL Class 4 rating for impact resistance. The Dallas area-a frequent target of hailstorms-was hit with a significant event and the performance of roofing shingles became a leading sales tool (See Roofing Contractor, March 20005). Like most other roofing manufacturers, Royal Building Products is careful to exclude hail damage from its warranties, but the steep insurance discounts and the appearance of slate will foster sales in this "target rich" environment.

Some manufacturers are cautious when it comes to promoting impact resistance, even though there are many indications that this might be the disruption event that makes this product soar. Hail damage has become such a roofing problem for insurance companies that some have advertised the use of better performing roofs in trade publications. State Farm even singled out four roofing manufacturers-Owens Corning, Malarkey Roofing, IKO Manufacturing and Atlas Roofing-for their efforts towards making impact-resistant shingles. While many asphalt shingles enjoy a UL Class 4 rating, the pliability of plastic and rubber compounds make alternative shingles all the more enticing.

Performance, cost, appearance, environment. They all mix together in the consumer's mind as choices are pondered and the gravity of the situation sinks in. It's a process that's unfamiliar yet filled with preconceived notions. This new focus on alternative shingles shows that roofing companies now know a lot more about curb appeal and how to sell it, directly or indirectly.

"It was a long time in the making to convert people off three-tabs into laminates," says TAMKO's Neil Robinson. "They're not afraid to spend some extra dollars to be able to get that look they want."