For years, The Durable Slate Co. has built a reputation for top-notch roofing restorations on difficult projects across the country. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, the company has locations across the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Southern states that are frequently recognized for exceptional work restoring historic slate, clay tile, and metal roofs on often historic structures and community landmarks. Now the rest of the world knows it, too.

Last fall, the International Federation for the Roofing Trade (IFD) honored the company as the winner of its annual award for excellence in metal roofing for the Steeple Square revitalization. The Durable State Co. is the first American roofing contractor to receive an IFD award. The announcement was made at the 67th annual IFD Congress Gala in Edinbrugh, Scotland, which Durable Slate Co. Owner and CEO John Chan was fortunate enough to attend.

“It was fantastic. It’s been a long-term vision and goal,” said Chan. “It’s been in the back of our minds for over 20 years — to be recognized as a top roofing company internationally.”

Chan joined roughly 300 other delegates at the annual celebration. In all, 86 projects were considered for awards from nearly a dozen countries. The Steeple Square project was nominated to the IFD by the Slate Roofing Contractors Association of North America Inc.

Preserving a Local Icon

Built in 1867, the Steeple Square is the new name of a very old and familiar place for most of those that live in eastern Iowa or western Illinois. It’s the former home to the St. Mary’s Parish, and is considered among the most unique buildings in Dubuque, Iowa. The impressive Gothic-style structure stretches more than 200 feet into the air and has withstood the tests of time and Mother Nature.

After the church shuddered in 2010, a groundswell of local support and savvy developers started a still-ongoing revitalization effort to redefine the space while still honoring its historical beauty. All of the exterior masonry was repaired and cleaned. The clock in the bell tower was completely restored as well.

Dubuque is going through a revitalization of its downtown area. A development company purchased the church and its surrounding buildings, which includes a school and what used to be the church rectory. Today, following renovations that began in 2016, the building was converted into residences and an event space known simply as Steeple Square. It remains a community attraction where memories are made, and the building’s history and beauty will be preserved for generations to come.

The crews with Durable Slate now have a lot to do with that.

The general contractor on the job was first drawn in by Durable Slate’s professional website and how it showcased the technical skill of more than capable crews, said Vice President and COO Gary Howes.

Ultimately, two essential factors won Durable the job, according to Howes.

First, the company had impeccable referrals from clients that verified the company’s past experience in successfully completing these type of projects.

The other reason came down to creative problem solving. There was consensus among many at the design phase of the project that it would be necessary to cut the steeple in half and lower it to the ground due to both weight considerations with the scaffolding, and that it would be faster and easier to install.

“Durable was able to reassure the team that we could have the scaffolding engineered in such a way that would not harm the lower structure of the church and that we would be able to meet their time expectations with the steeple left in place,” Howes explained. “We have a great track record of keeping our projects on budget, on schedule and a great safety and compliance record.”

The project also carried some specific safety issues that required a special approach. For starters, the original roofing material was a ferrous metal that had been painted over and coated multiple times throughout the years. That required pre-work testing of the coatings for lead and asbestos. Both were negative.

Once those concerns were met, standard safety protocols applied and were closely monitored. All Durable Slate employees are trained on the OSHA 10 hour course and all of the company’s foremen, project managers and sales team members are trained on the OSHA 30 hour course. Howes said they’re all also being trained to the level of a “Competent Person” for scaffolding erection and inspection.

“It’s worth mentioning that there were no injuries on the job and no safety infractions,” Howes said.

Challenges Upfront

Howes said he immediately started focusing on the toughest part of pricing the project. Accurately calculating how long will it take to make, fit and secure each individual piece of intricate design, and what variables the installers will run into during that process, is essential for estimating man hours and materials.

The other immediate challenge was anticipating the weather patterns of the Central Plains, and how they may negatively impact the schedule and budget. Exacerbating those concerns were scaffolding rental and lodging, food and transportation costs for the crew.

Once the work began, the biggest challenge, by far, was the attention to detail needed to work with all of the ornamental pieces in very confined spaces, Howes said.

“This was tricky at times,” he said. “Some of the pieces were very large and hard to get up into place through the web of scaffolding. Some pieces were small, which created its own set of challenges in ensuring they were placed symmetrically with the other sides.”

The ornaments also led to a valuable lesson.

“We learned that we need to get more than one or two pieces of each of the ornamental parts to use for replication,” Howes explained. “Most of these pieces where hand-made originally and the location for where each piece is installed is made of custom woodwork, so not every piece is the same and each location may be different enough for the pieces to not be interchangeable.”

Jobsite ingenuity was an added benefit, as crews came up with some clever solutions to help cut down time and energy in having not to go up and down the 250-foot scaffolding any more than what was absolutely necessary.

That included hoisting their Porta Potty up on the scaffold at about the mid-level for convenience. They also created a small break area up on the scaffolding where they could comfortably eat lunch with a microwave.

“Our craftsmen… they were real troopers. They toughed out some rough weather and kept on pushing the job forward,” Howes said.

Project Foreman Jason Lee lead by example, which inspired the rest of the team. He joined the company 12 years ago after completing a four-year degree from the Columbus College of Art & Design and working in the field for about a decade. Howes said he worked his way up in the field by emerging as one of the top craftsman and leaders. Lee has been instrumental in helping Durable develop its training programs as well as setting technical standards.

By his side was veteran Project Manager Shane Day, who has been with Durable for more than 17 years. Day came in as a timber framer with a thirst to learn and grow. Howes calls him an excellent example of the effective training program at Durable that allowed him to rise from laborer to a top foreman before continuing his education to become a senior project manager.

The experience and care for high-quality installations shines through. Since Durable crews specialize in working with traditional roofing materials, tools and techniques, they tend to play a bigger role in the diagnosis of the existing situation and the proper resolution that meets the design and function of the roof. 

“When working with materials like natural slate, natural clay tiles, copper and lead, it’s of the utmost importance that the design of the roof system and the workmanship complement the natural longevity of these materials,” Howes said. “When one is installing materials that have a proven track record of lasting many generations if not centuries like the aforementioned, the craftsmanship, the experience and care has to be there in every single aspect of the installation process.”