Red Tile Roofs, Neuchâtel

Seen from the heights of the ancient defense tower Neuchâtel's red tile rooftops are like autumn leaves scattered across the Swiss landscape after a strong wind. Tile roofs on Europe's buildings go back many centuries. Whoever thought of forming clay into regular shapes, firing them and arranging them like fish scales on top of a building to protect oneself from the rain and elements? The answer is lost in time. But the material and method proved relatively cheap and durable. Tile roofs can last for hundreds of years as have countless Neuchâtel roofs.

One year the owner of this very beautiful building on Rue du Coq d'Inde decided to replace his roof. (By the way he is the owner and manager of the antique shop on the ground floor. His antiques are superb; I highly recommend a visit to his shop.)
Traditional Swiss roofs usually consist of heavy beams to which are nailed slats, on which are placed the red tiles. Though the red tiles keep out rain, the wind and humidity in the air does seep between the tiles. An ancient attic actually can be rather drafty. To better weather-proof an attic, planks or plywood, and tar paper are added, and the original tiles put back onto the roof or are replaced entirely.

Building Before Re-tiling, Rue du Coq d'Inde

Our Building On Opposite Side of Rue du Coq d'Inde.

Our apartment is just across the street on the forth floor where you see the three smaller windows. The apartment extends to the first two windows of the building to the right, only one window of which is visible.

We could see the progress of the re-tiling over the many weeks, and I took photos of the various stages. This was a unique opportunity. How many people get the chance to see the re-tiling of a red tiled roof on an. ancient Swiss building? Who really cares? I do, actually. And, you do too or you wouldn't have read this far.

Because the stone facade of the building will, also, be refurbished scaffolding is placed in front of the building and all the way to the roof line, a full five stories. Orange plastic netting at the top story and roof line helps keep tile and roofers from sliding off and onto unsuspecting pedestrians on the street below.

Building with Scaffolding and Netting

Removing Old Roof Tiles

First the old tiles and slats are removed from a section of the roof. The tiles are not fastened to the roof, rather a protrusion on the underside of the tile 'hooks' onto the slat. The weight of the tiles above and to one side of each tile help keep the tile weighted down. The roofer in the photo lifts each tile one by one and slides each down the steep slope of the roof where they are 'caught' by the board that you see on edge at the bottom of the ladder. The tiles are then stacked and placed on a small platform where by pulley and winch they descend to the street below.

After the tiles are removed the slats are, also, removed and then discarded. Wood planks are then nailed to the ancient beams. On top of the planks is laid tar paper providing extra moisture protection. Notice the parallel beams near the crown of the roof. These beams are large - about 6x8 inches or more. They are original to the building, so are over two hundred years old. No nails or bolts were used over two hundred years ago. All beams were notched and held secure by large wood dowels.

Horizontally across the beams you see the roofer nailing new planks. Below him the black tar paper has already been laid.

Wood Planks and Tar Paper, Foundation of New Roof Tiles

Wood Slats Nailed to Tar Paper and Wood Planks

After the tar paper is laid down the slats are nailed down. The tiles will rest upon the slats. As mentioned a small protrusion on the underside of each tile 'hooks' onto the upper side of the slat.

Notice that the roofer on the far right is not sitting on the roof, but is standing through it.

The bells of the clock tower in the background ring every fifteen minutes giving cadence to the day's work. The clock was built in the 1700's on top of one of the few remaining defensive towers of the old city wall.

This photo shows the roof at various stages - tiles and slats removed with beams exposed in the upper right, planks being nailed to the beams by two roofers, and on the left tar paper has been laid down, and slats nailed on top of tar paper and planks. On the far right is still the original roof, which will be replaced next.

Swiss Roof at Various Stages of Replacement

Laying of Red Tiles

After the slats are in place the tiles are placed on top of the slats. You see here short stacks of tile like un-played dominoes ready to be used. The installation of the tiles goes fairly quickly because the tiles 'hook' onto the slats and are not fastened.

If you are going to re-tile the roof you might as well re-plaster the chimney. Notice the roofer on the right has received a phone call on his mobile.

'Honey, will you stop by the grocery store on your way home tonight, and buy some cheese for fondue for dinner?' 'Yes, dear.' 'You won't forget, will you?' 'No, dear. I won't forget.'

Flashing and Plastering the Chimney

aying of Roof Cap Tiles

After the tiles are in place rounded roof caps are put on the crest of the roof, and where the roofs join on the corners. Notice the chimney is finished and copper flashing in place around the base to keep the rain from seeping into the attic. This nice, shiny copper will turn green eventually.

At the last minute the owner of the building decided to put in skylights. The skylights provide some light to the attic without an increase in the electric bill.

After several weeks the red tile roof is finished. In another two or three hundred years it may need replacing, but actually with a little mending, it may last four our five hundred years.

See ancient tiles in the archaeology museum.