The World of Clay Roofs

Whilst we at Lifestiles are UK based and provide handmade tiles for period and prestige properties in the country, we take an interest in all matters relating to historical buildings and all forms of roofing materials.  This month, we thought we’d take a look at some vernacular architecture from around the world which involves clay tiles.

Hand manufacturing of roof tiles dates back for many thousands of years.  There is evidence that they were being used to protect some of the earliest buildings in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt and the word ‘tile’ comes from the Latin word tegula which the Romans used for terracotta roof tiles.

Aerial view of clay roofs in Lisbon


This image shows the skyline of Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal.  There is something, somehow romantic about this combination of terracotta roof tiles, whitewashed walls and Juliet balconies.  The Algarve has long-established tradition of manufacturing terracotta tiles made of local white and red clay.  They are known by the name ‘Santa Catarina’, because the village of Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, located between Tavira and São Brás de Alportel, is the heart of this handicraft.  The tiles are made using a clay from a narrow seam found across the Algarve.  According to one producer, if they keep using the clay at the same rate, it will run out in about 10 to 20 million years, so not much fear of that!


In India, red clay tiles are also made from naturally occurring clay and have been the most prominent roofing material for centuries.  Their strength and heat resistance has made them more fit-for-purpose than shingles, material sheets and other options. When first produced, Indian tiles have a glossy sheen, but this fades within 2-5 years because of the harsh climate.

Chinese palace with clay roof tiles


Similarly, the Chinese have been using glazed clay roof tiles since as early as 1,000 BC – so 3,000 years.  Among their more practical uses, they were also used on the spectacular palaces and ceremonial temples known as top-tier buildings with their upturned corners.  In ancient China, roofs had to comply with special, hierarchical rules. For example, hip roofs were only permitted for use on imperial palaces and temples during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and glazed semi-circular tiles, usually coloured yellow, were mainly used for imperial palaces and temples.

Aerial view of clay roofs in Tuscany


And last, but by no means least, are the beautiful buildings and hill towns of Tuscany.

The curved terracotta roof tiles found across Italy are referred to as ‘coppi’. However, the tiles traditionally used in Tuscany are smaller.  They are also made using a more compact form of clay and are blended with a wider lipped flat tile known as ‘Tegole’.

Larger curved tiles which cup into the adjacent tile, known as imbrex and tegula tiles, are more popularly used in the hotter areas of Italy.  These are produced using more porous clay, which is less well suited to withstand cold temperatures.

Just like Italy’s wine and cuisine, different regions use slightly different methods of laying tiles as well as varied tile sizes. These are dictated by architectural style in that region and the roof gradient, which is often dependent on the climate, ranging from the snowy Alps to the sunny Mediterranean.

Across the planet and across millennia, clay roof tiles have proven to be unparalleled in the way that they protect homes, families and investments.  And yet, both the products and the handmade quality production have barely changed across the world’s geography and throughout the years.

Clay roof tiles: solid, dependable, versatile and beautiful.

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