I was recently asked, “What will roofing membranes look like in the future?” It got me thinking about all the changes I’ve seen in the industry over the decades. Having worked with commercial roofing membranes to some degree since 1979, I’ve witnessed the astounding transformation of the commercial roofing industry. The most notable transformation has taken place in the products offered and their performance.
Things have come a long way over the centuries, from man using a cave as shelter to today’s polymeric roof membranes. With most of the advancements in roof membrane technology having taken place in the last 50 years, roofing has moved on from built-up roofs comprised of asphalt or coal tar and felts to neoprene rubber, chlorinated polyethylene (CPE), PVC, nitrile rubber, butyl rubber, ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM), chlorosulfanated polyethylene (aka Hypalon®), non-reinforced to reinforced membranes, modified bitumen made of styrene butadiene styrene (SBS) or atactic polypropylene (APP), thermoplastic polyolefin (TPS) and ketone ethylene elastomer (KEE) membranes. Thicknesses now range from 36 mils (0.036") to 200+ mils (0.200+") and sizes vary from 1 meter wide x 10 meters long to 40' wide x 200' long, etc., etc., etc.
Over the years, some advancements that worked in a lab didn’t work so well on a roof in the real world—because, often, accelerated weathering devices used in labs didn’t represent real world conditions. For example, when butyl rubber (polyisobutylene) was introduced for roofing purposes, it exhibited great durability in a weatherometer, but not on real roofs. Neoprene is chemically resistant, but real world conditions made it dry out and become brittle. Additionally, EPDM shrunk when used outside of a lab and the surfaces of early TPOs oxidized when exposed to a natural environment, making them nearly impossible to heat-weld after a few days exposure to the elements.
Some of the roofing membrane advancements that worked in Europe didn’t fare so well in North America. Non-reinforced thermoplastic roof membranes shattered as a result of the sub-freezing temperature contraction they experienced in North America. And larger warehouse-type roofs in North America also tended to have greater expansion and contraction factors that fatigued materials.
And, while many of the roof systems developed for various roof membranes are still successful, many weren’t viable. Systems like INSTA-SEAM, Fast Track and MARS-NP were unique and advanced. However, while manufacturers’ technical department staff could install these systems correctly, the systems had no margin for error on a roof in the real world and were generally too sophisticated for the average roofing crew.
Beyond weather conditions and ultraviolet attack, all roof membranes and roof systems have been challenged by one common denominator: Human beings develop and install them. And thus, errors are made. In response to this challenge, roof membrane manufacturers have worked to develop roof membranes and roof systems to limit the human factor.
So, what will future roof membranes look like?
From my viewpoint, it’s not a matter of what they will look like, but rather, how manufacturers of high-performance roof membranes will continue to limit the human factor, and what roof membranes will do besides providing a covering for a building. If we can imagine it, it will happen. Today’s fiction will become tomorrow’s reality.
How would you limit the human factor?
What else would you like a roof membrane to do?