The Fifth Wall A Close Look at Your Building's Roof

“Up On the Roof” is the title of a famous 1960s song by The Drifters about two New York inner-city lovers who go up to the roof just to get away from the “hustling crowd.” There’s a lot of romantic connotation to New York City’s rooftops—but how many people really know, or care, what’s up there?

Most apartment dwellers never venture up to the roof, sometimes called the forgotten “fifth wall” of the building. Indeed, they are usually not allowed to do so—unless, of course they’re lucky enough to have a finished roof deck or “green roof.”

Most New York City apartment buildings have flat roofs, but the material varies, often depending on how old the roof is. According to Wayne Bellet of Bellet Construction Co. in Manhattan, older buildings usually have multiple-layer roofs that were made with “layer upon layer of hot tar, felt, hot tar, felt, and so on, finished [when it’s done nowadays] with either gravel or a membrane.” Although this type of roofing is sometimes still used, Bellet says “It’s largely been superceded by today’s technology.”

A wide variety of roof products are used to construct today’s roofs. One popular material is modified bitumen, an asphalt-type substance that has had modifiers added to it to give it plastic or rubber-like properties.

“The beauty of modified bitumen,” says Bellet, “is that is that has a polyester core, which is very durable. If you remember back when we wore polyester, it was almost immune to tears and splits.” Same goes for polyester roofing products as well—though they don’t come in as many festive patterns.

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