Pros and Cons of Flat Roofing Systems

  • 01 of 04

    Flat Roofing Systems

    Flat roofing buildings in Brooklyn
    fotog / Getty Images

    Flat roofing is not actually flat; it has a very low slope—between 1/4 to 1/2 inch per foot—so that it drains water. But such a low slope holds snow and water much longer than a steeply pitched roof and therefore needs a very different material to stay watertight. While standard sloped roofs typically have shingles that are overlapped like fish scales so that water slides over them, a flat roof is designed as a continuous, or monolithic, surface that can hold some standing water for a limited time.

    There are three main types of flat roof systems:

    • Membrane or single-ply
    • Built-up roofing (BUR)
    • Modified bitumen (MBR)
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  • 02 of 04

    Membrane (Single-Ply) Roofing

    EPDM covered flat roof
    KVDP/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    There are several types of membrane roofing materials, including rubber and plastic formulations. The most common type used for residential flat roofing is EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer), a synthetic rubber sheet material that is also commonly used as a pond liner.

    Membrane roofing consists of a layer of insulation board topped by sheets (the membrane) of EPDM rubber or other material. The EPDM membrane can be loose-laid and held in place with ballast, such as river rock or masonry pavers. The membrane can also be fastened or glued to the insulation layer.

     

    Pros

    • Repairs are relatively simple and inexpensive; homeowners may be able to make some repairs themselves.
    • The roof deck doesn’t need reinforcement because EPDM roofing is lightweight.
    • Leaks are very rare with EPDM roofing, provided no surface damage occurs.
    • EPDM roofing can retain heat to lower heating bills; other types of membrane roofing can reflect heat to keep the home cooler.

    Cons

    • Roof penetrations, such as pipes, HVAC systems, and chimneys, make installation more difficult and costly; penetrations can be a source of leaks if not flashed properly.
    • Membranes can be punctured by falling branches, foot traffic during installation or maintenance, or storm damage, leading to leaks.
    • Seams between membrane sheets, while sealed, are common areas for leaks. 
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  • 03 of 04

    Built-Up Roofing (BUR)

    Group of worker installing tar foil on the rooftop
    PhanuwatNandee / Getty Images

    Built-up roofing (BUR) was the most common type of flat roof before modified bitumen and membrane roofing were developed. BUR consists of many layers: a bottom layer or two of insulation board, multiple intermediate layers of tar or asphalt alternated with layers of roofing felt, and a top layer of gravel. The result is a thick, tough, seamless roof assembly that is highly resistant to damage.

    While built-up roofing is still used in some commercial applications, it is not a common roof type for houses, primarily due to is weight and thickness as well as the strong odors and mess it creates during installation.

    Pros

    • BUR offers excellent protection against water, UV rays, and inclement weather.
    • BUR low-maintenance and costs very little to maintain throughout its lifetime.
    • It’s easy to remove layers when repairing or resurfacing the roof.
    • The gravel in built-up roofing makes it highly resistant to normal foot traffic.

    Cons

    • Installing BUR is slow and labor-intensive, due to the many layers and materials involved.
    • Potentially hazardous fumes and vapors are emitted during installation.
    • The roofing assembly is very heavy and often requires that roof joists are strengthened before it’s installed.
    • Finding the source of a leak can be difficult and sometimes requires dismantling the whole roof.
    • Built-up roofing is not flexible in cold temperatures, making it susceptible to damage.
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  • 04 of 04

    Modified Bitumen Roofing

    Roofer preparing part of bitumen roofing felt roll for melting by gas heater torch flame
    Nenov / Getty Images

    Modified bitumen roofing (MBR) was developed in the early 1960s as a lighter-weight alternative to BUR. It also comes without much of the mess, heat, and smell associated with installing BUR. Modified bitumen roofing is a flexible, asphalt-based material with a mineral top coating, similar to traditional asphalt shingles. It comes in rolled sheets that are 3 feet wide and up to 36 feet long. The sheets are rolled onto the roof atop a base sheet membrane.

    The conventional method of installation, called "torch-down," involves heating the backside of the roofing as it is unrolled, essentially melting the material to the base layer. There are also self-adhesive versions of modified bitumen that install in a peel-and-stick fashion.

    Pros

    • Factory-applied mineral surfacing ensures consistent installation.
    • MBR is much simpler to install than BUR, saving labor and reducing installation error.
    • Offers better elasticity and flexibility at low temperatures, compared to BUR.
    • BUR is low-maintenance and durable.
    • Self-adhesive roll roofing can be installed by homeowners.
    • Most BUR material can be recycled, just like asphalt shingles.
    • Provides better durability than a BUR with similar ease of installation like EPDM.

    Cons

    • Some application techniques require an open flame/torch, which requires special skills and safety considerations.
    • Overlapping joints must be correctly adhered to prevent leaks.
    • Modified bitumen is generally less attractive than BUR or membrane roofs with gravel or river rock ballast.