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Dedham man's book pops the lid off America's roofs

Posted by Michele Morgan Bolton  May 4, 2010 09:19 AM

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Dedham resident Mark Kelly can rattle off more details about roofing in one sitting than most people could ever assimilate in a lifetime.

For example, who knew that there are more than 250 billion square feet of residential roofing in the United States and more than 750 billion square feet of commercial roofing?

Kelly's new book, "American Roofing: Roofing in America," at 333 pages, is one of the first books of its kind to take an in-depth look at an industry Kelly knows inside and out after spending 30 years in the design, construction, restoration, and preservation of some of the country's most significant buildings.

The average American does not typically think about the roof overhead, Kelly said, let alone what goes into making that roof a good one.

His book explores the history, development, design, and technology of American roofing by examining roofing projects throughout each of the 50 states and offering insight into some of the country's most famous and historic buildings.

That includes the Flat Iron Building in New York, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Wrigley Building in Chicago, and even the Fairbanks House in Dedham (circa 1640) that is believed to be the oldest timber-frame structure still in existence in the nation.

So, why is it that America can claim the best roofs in the world?

"It's a combination of natural resources and the American spirit,'' Kelly said. "The American personality is always trying to get better. If something is weak, we try to improve it."

Most folks look at roofs as just a layer that keeps the rain out. But for Kelly, roofing defines structures, from churches and temples to skyscrapers. Every roof is specialized for its purpose.

The earliest roofs, fashioned from red cedar, include domes like the Massachusetts State House, which over time evolved to tin and then copper topped in gold, Kelly said.

Kelly said he knew from about age 5 that engineering would be his destiny. His website details how he helped on family building projects as a boy, pouring concrete, digging holes, installing sheetrock, painting, and, of course, roofing.

After graduating from Northeastern University, where he also played football, Kelly worked for UPS as a regional project engineer and roofing expert. Then on to a large engineering firm before starting his first business, Kelly and Stewart Roofing.

Next came a move to consulting, where he said he landed the largest roof design contract in New England history with a bid to consult and supervise the reroofing of 50 schools and seven DPW buildings. Now, he is one of the top 20 roofing consultants in the United States per the CARE Center for the Advancement of Roofing.

After all this time, Kelly said it's hard to assign favorites. But if he could, on a materials level alone, he likes the old coal tar pitch roofs of post-World War II days, known, like the country's residents of the time, for their steadfast endurance.

These days, locally, the rubber roof underneath the tile dome of West Roxbury's Holy Name Church would win hands down, Kelly said, calling it his modern-day "100-year roof.''

And, nationally? Probably the largest copper roof in the world, located in Ann Arbor, Mich., which covers the three-quarter-of-a-mile-long headquarters for Domino's Pizza, he said.

While there are lots of technical books about roofs already in stores and libraries, Kelly said he realized what was missing was information on why roofs are important.

"It struck me that most people take them for granted,'' he said. "But after water and food, isn't the next most important thing shelter?"

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Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at

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