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Fall/ Winter 2008/2009: Issue #7

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Traditional Tile Roofs of Guatemala

Joseph Jenkins

Traditional Tile Roofs of Guatemala by Joseph Jenkins

When a professional roofing contractor travels the world, he looks at roofs — even when he’s on vacation, he can’t help himself. I have looked at traditional roofs around the planet on several continents, but I found the tile roofs of Guatemala to be particularly interesting.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the roof system that is most extraordinary. Clay is pressed into flat shingles and tapered, one end slightly wider than the other. The slabs are then rolled into curved tiles — pan tiles and cover tiles. These are heat fired to create a hard, durable roofing material. The tiles are then laid in courses up the roof with the pan tiles underneath and the cover tiles on top. No fasteners, no underlayment and very little wood is needed in this incredible roofing system. And guess what — the roofs last indefinitely.

But tile roofs have to have underlayment! That’s what everybody says, don’t they? Where’s the ice and water stuff? Clearly, some types of tile roofs can last for decades, generations, maybe even centuries with nothing but clay and wood as the necessary ingredients. I’ve witnessed the same sort of simple tile roof systems and their extraordinary longevity in Europe. Apparently, roofs were being installed long before there were underlayment salespeople.

But what happens when a tile breaks or slides out? Well, you can just slide it back in or lift out the broken one and set a new one in its place. Guatemala is famous for its earthquakes, yet these roofs are found everywhere, intact. It’s worth taking a close look at this traditional roofing system just to understand how simple, natural and long-lasting a roof can be.

Traditional Tile Roofs of Guatemala by Joseph Jenkins

The photo above shows how the roof is assembled. The slight taper to the tiles allows them to overlap each other — the pan tiles are wider at the top and narrower at the bottom while the cover tiles are wider at the bottom and narrower at the top. They fit together simply and ingeniously to create an elegant roof.

Traditional Tile Roofs of Guatemala by Joseph Jenkins

The photo above shows the actual tiles, front and back, including the overlap marks. There are no nail holes, notches, cleats or ribs. The tiles sit on top of each other and are apparently held in place by gravity — nature’s glue.

Traditional Tile Roofs of Guatemala by Joseph Jenkins

The photo above shows the underside of a roof. Wood members are spaced just right to allow the pan tiles to nestle in between them. The friction fit seems to be enough at that relatively low slope to keep the tiles from sliding down the roof. The cover tiles lie on top of the pans. Like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, the shape of the tiles prevents slippage while creating a roof without fasteners.

I managed to get a close enough look at the roofs to confirm that there was nothing holding the tiles in place other than their own weight. Some of them looked ancient. Someone came up with a pretty good idea ages ago and it has become a long-standing tradition in Latin America. Pretty impressive.

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