Brian Vanden Brink
After more than 30 years, I've nailed on so many shingle roofs I smell cedar in my sleep. Wood's a traditional favorite, but good alternatives exist.
Where wood works best
Architects and developers appreciate the look so identified with beloved beach cottages. And under the right conditions, wood roofs can provide 30 years of maintenance-free wear, plus they stay more secure than most other products when big winds blow. Disadvantages include cost (60 to 100 percent more than asphalt) and the expertise required to nail them properly. Theoretically, cedar shingles work everywhere, even in subtropical Florida where the sun may curl them like potato chips. But don't risk this choice if your pitch isn't steep enugh to prevent water from collecting and seeping. And don't use it in a region where it isn't commonplace or your home may become a learning lab for aspiring shinglers.
The asphalt choice
Cheaper and easier to install, asphalt shingles come in sheets scored to resemble three side-by-side shingles. They're nailed so 10 inches of each sheet overlap the sheet below―just like cedar shingles, which overlap about 13 inches. Ideally, heat buildup helps the asphalt layers adhere to each other and operate as one big shingle. You'll find endless color and style options, but make sure all your shingles are from the same factory run. (There can be variations, even with the same color code.) Production roofers can whip these roofs on fast, but my crews take time to storm-nail the shingle sections. That means using six nails instead of the usual four for each 3-foot section. I've seen asphalt shingles that weren't storm-nailed blow off like a deck of cards.
The metal option.
If installed correctly, metal roofs should outlast most everything else. But the roofer needs to know a thing or two about metal fabrication as well as carpentry. And be prepared to spend; materials alone may equal the cost of a completely installed wood roof. However, it's a good choice for a flat or nearly flat roof because pooling water is less likely to penetrate the metal. And if you're building in the hottest zones of the country, metal's reflective properties may save you enough in utilities to justify the extra outlay.