Check the box. After 20 years of scheming and dreaming of attending one of the world’s largest roofing expositions, I finally made it this year. Along with a study tour group from the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) that included my wonderful wife, Micki, I attended the Dach + Holz International in Stuttgart, Germany.
This bi-annual event is known as the trade fair for timber construction, works, roof, and wall, and brings in attendees from over 80 countries. For four days in early February, 52,000 people attended exhibits put on by over 600 companies in nearly a million square feet of exhibit space.
We had two days to attempt to take it all in. Fortunately, the several exhibit buildings were mostly split into the roofing, metal, and timber categories. This made it possible to get around to most of the exhibits related to roofing. The exhibition spans four days, but the two days were plenty. At least my feet were telling me it was enough.
There was much to learn, which was my primary reason for wanting to attend this exposition for all these years. How do they roof in Europe? What are the primary differences in systems, materials, and codes? Is it true that roofing is an honored trade there and roofers are generally considered worthy and honorable members of society?
To begin with, roofing and construction practices in Germany do not compare with those employed in the U.S. Sustainable construction has been the practice in Europe for centuries and it remains so today. The low end of the steep roofing scale would be some of the metal systems on the market there or perhaps some of the tiles, which they sometimes refer to as “bricks.” The upper end of the steep scale is slate, which is likewise the case in many parts of the world. There were nearly zero asphalt shingles on display.
Staying on the steep-slope theme, you quickly realize why the “roof + timber” exposition makes good sense. Roofers, known as Dachdeckers, are required to install batten and counter-batten systems as a part of their work.
Dachdeckers (Dachdeckerin for the female roofers) are widely held in high regard in their communities as I have always heard. This is no doubt due to the rigorous training they must undertake to reach the point where they can call themselves Dachdeckers. And to be a roofing contractor you must be a Dachdecker Meister, or Master Roofer. This process normally takes 10 years and includes far more classroom and practical training time than we would encounter in this country.
As much as it seems the Germans have the workforce situation all figured out, many of the contractors I spoke with complained about the struggle they have with parents all wanting their children to attend four-year universities. At least in Germany they have a robust system for career and technical training that provides young people with a good alternative.
I did not conduct any survey or find evidence of any surveys that would show the difference in our workforce development and theirs, but speaking with the contractors tells me this is more of an “irritation” than a crisis, which is what we routinely call our lack of an emerging workforce. Also, while Germany has a migrant workforce, they do not seem to have much of a place in roofing. I would think that an immigrant might have a hard time signing on with a roofing contractor. To compare, what is the percentage of roofing work done by immigrant labor in your market… 30%... 50%...70%?
The low-slope roofing market is likewise quite different from the North American market. For instance, the roof insulation they use. I may have been prejudiced by the part of the study tour that took place at the Rockwool research facility in Copenhagen, but the presence of stone wool insulation is more prevalent in Germany. Their standards and requirements for roof insulation are elevated like ours, but they seem to have a greater buy-in for the fireproof and other characteristics of stone wool insulation over polyiso. If the expo was any indicator of the overall market, polyiso and stone wool insulation were shown as parts of most low-slope systems on display.
The other key difference I discovered on the low-slope side was the preponderance of garden roofing. The leader of the German Roofers Association told me roughly half of the roofs his company installs are fully or at least partially covered with plants. Their energy is very expensive in comparison to ours and the overall attitude in Europe as it relates to climate change seem to be the key drivers toward garden roofs.
All things considered, I do not see their way of constructing built spaces as better or worse than ours; just different. They build to the expectations of their clientele, just like we do. Many of the systems have grown popular based on local availability, cost, and ease of installation. There were many displays of low-slope systems being installed. These live demonstrations were actively attended by roofers seeking to learn new and better methods. One was produced by one of the Standard Industries (parent company of GAF) companies showing a torch-applied membrane that was pre-fixed to the roof insulation. Only the seams were torched. That’s right; torched. Right there on the exhibit floor (behind glass walls of course).
Speaking of the roofers attending the expo and the demonstrations, many were just that: roofers: Dachdeckers and Dachdeckerins. The Dach + Holz show exhibitors welcomed all comers with open arms (and in many cases open beer gardens with hot meals served at long tables). This makes sense if you must be a roofer before you become a master and you must become a master if you are going to be a roofing contractor.
Exhibitors in any expo want to spend their time showing their wares to the person or persons who make or at least influence purchasing decisions. You will not find many roofers in roofing expositions in the U.S. I have been told for years that the exhibitors do not wish to spend their time with anyone who cannot make or influence purchasing decisions now. Further, they would have no reason to believe that a person who is a roofer today will potentially own the company tomorrow.
This is a real shame and a loss for the roofing trade. Without a culture that has workers poised for growth in a career (not just a job), it is difficult to sell the rest of the community on the idea that roofing work is a good and honorable trade.
But there is hope. The NRCA is presently working on several initiatives to bring the roofing industry together with the career and technical education (CTE) community. The mission is to introduce roofing to students seeking a career in the skilled trades. One of these initiatives is a partnership with SkillsUSA. SkillsUSA is a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. SkillsUSA helps each student excel.
This year at the International Roofing Expo (IRE) in Dallas, NRCA executives took a first step by inviting a small group of architecture and engineering students and their instructor to tour the IRE show floor. The students were treated to booth tours of several roofing manufacturers, metal fabricating machinery manufacturers, and other roofing-related exhibits. This was an eye-opening experience for these students and their instructor who were able to witness the enormity of the roofing industry. Like most people in your community, they simply take roofing for granted and give it little thought.
When you boil it all down, an experience such as attending a roofing show in a foreign country comes down to people. At least for me. The people in attendance at the Dach + Holz were younger than the groups I am accustomed to encountering at our trade shows here. They are not only the contractors but the workers, from student/apprentices to the journeymen to the masters. They were all there to learn, and they were all in.
I had the opportunity to speak with many of the young Dachdeckers. The ones working with slate and tiles, the ones working with low-slope systems, and the ones working with metal roofing systems. Each one had a story of where they started, where they are and where they have been on their journey of becoming a Dachdecker. Some had a clear vision to become a master and others had their sites set on other opportunities; most within the trade. They were all engaged, which was exciting to see.
The first roofer I met was a Dachdeckerin. Her name is Marleen Solle and I hope you will come to know her better in a future Roofing Contractor article. Her family (I was also able to meet her father) has been in the roofing business for generations. She is years into her training as a roofer and will have the opportunity to advance in her family’s business. But it won’t be a “gimme.” She will have to work and study and understand the trade as deeply as all the experienced roofers. She may even become a master one day some years from now.
Without question I am delighted to have finally made good on my plan to attend the Dach + Holz International. When it comes around in two years it will be held in Cologne, Germany, a beautiful city with many points of interest and really good food. You should certainly consider attending in 2022. Taking a trip to a foreign country to learn more about your trade will greatly expand your world view and will remind you that you are part of an industry that is significant no matter where on the planet you may be.