When hail hit San Antonio last year our neighborhood was in the direct line of fire. Pretty much every house around us has had its roof replaced in the last nine months. As Sammy and I walked to school every morning we would always see work being done. We saw workers install everything from standing seam metal roofs to asphalt shingles.
Lots of asphalt shingles.
Today over eighty percent of American roofs are covered with asphalt shingles. Asphalt shingles are manufactured to look like traditional wood shingles: individual sheets are varied and colored to simulate the appearance of their predecessor. The reason is clear: people like the look of wood shingles but asphalt shingles are less inexpensive, they're fireproof and they're quick and easy to install.
Of course it wasn't always this way. When I grew up I lived in a neighborhood where all the houses had wood shingles. Over the last several decades these traditional wood shingle roofs were slowly replaced so that now it is remarkable when I come across one. This recently happened when I was hiking (again with Sammy) at Palmetto State Park. As we walked toward the park's historic Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) picnic pavilion I noticed the wonderful depth and texture of these shingles (or rather these wood shakes - wood shingles are machine cut and regular whereas wood shakes are hand cut and more varied).
Of course the irony is that just as asphalt shingles replaced wood shingles on homes all over the country, the wood shakes at the pavilion at Palmetto State Park actually were themselves a replacement. The roof of the pavilion was originally covered in dried dwarf palmetto fronds - the type of plant that gives the park its name. Part of the ethos of the CCC was to use locally available materials as much as possible. It was the Great Depression and so while labor was cheap, materials were expensive. If you could cover the roof of your building with something that was literally laying around the forrest floor, all the better. The problem was that dried palm fronds need to be replaced often and are a bit of a fire hazard. The same could be said of wood shingles.
It's not uncommon for one system to replace another over time but it's important to remember that something is often lost in the transition. It's much more convenient, for example, to be able to make a call from anywhere versus being tied to a land line, but the quality of the connection is almost always worse. It is much easier to communicate with someone via email, but the intimacy and physicality of a hand-written letter has been lost. Covering your roof with a tactile, natural material - be it wood strips or palm fronds - may be expensive and time-consuming, but somehow it feel better than draping blankets of asphalt over your roof like everyone else in your neighborhood.