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I love getting e-mails from readers. Especially the nice ones. The not-so-nice e-mails just make me even crankier than I usually am these sweltering dog days of summer. I recently received such an e-mail (a nice one) from a reader in Phnom Penh about the column I wrote on asphalt shingles.

Stephen writes: "Having lived in Europe and Asia for eight years, everyone here knows that the best covering for a steep roof is (ceramic) tiled roofing. No one would ever dream of having asphalt shingles as they would be laughed at by the neighbours, not to mention that it is considered a substandard product and in many cases is not allowed by local authorities because it cheapens the look of the neighbourhoods [yes, even in Cambodia!]"

It gave me a delighted chuckle, first of all, that someone in Phnom Penh was reading my column, and then to think that a material that is standard in every middle-class and upper middle-class neighbourhood in North America would cause derision in other parts of the world.

But I get Stephen's point. Through our travels or one form of media or another, we've all seen the beautiful terra cotta-coloured tile roofs of villas in the Mediterranean, particularly in Spain, as well as in Portugal and other warmer parts of the world.

I love the feeling of languid escape they evoke. Inevitably, whenever I see a photo or postcard of villages or towns dotted with ceramic-tile roofs and the striking white stucco abodes they protect, I imagine myself lounging nearby, sipping some exotic drink while a heartbreakingly blue sea sparkles in the distance. Not even I could be cranky in such a setting.

We do, of course, have authentic ceramic-tile roofs in North America, too. Architectural Digest magazine routinely features amazing tile-roofed mansions from the sunny southern states, predominantly Florida and California.

Donald Trump's 18-year restoration of the historic, Mediterranean-revival Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., included restoring the authentic ceramic-tile roofs. The estate's former owner, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, would have been proud!

You'll even see these roofs, or what passes for them, in Canada, although the actual composition of a ceramic roof tile on a Florida or California mansion may be quite different from their northern mimic.

Because of its moisture absorption, some of the clay tile used in warmer climates wouldn't stand up to the freeze-thaw cycle most of Canada is subject to.

To combat the problems foisted on this material by our colder climate, manufacturers have developed tiles that have a higher silicone content and that are hard-fired to prevent them from fracturing when frozen. Consequently, the ceramic tile roofs you see in the colder parts of North America are probably look-alikes made of this sturdier composition. They may also be concrete, or a concrete composite material, dyed to look like clay.

Both clay and concrete tiles are also heavy, though concrete is slightly less so.

If you're considering this material for your roof, confirm with your contractor that your roof framing structure is strong enough. If it's not designed to carry the extra weight, it may need modification.

Additionally, because clay or concrete tile won't deteriorate like asphalt or wood, the other materials used in its installation -- nails, flashing and felt -- should be top quality to better match the tile's long lifespan.

Like anything, there are pros and cons to this roofing material. According to Sheri Koones in House About It, the advantages are:

Clay and concrete tiles can't rot, and animals and bugs can't eat them.

They're impervious to salt spray and pollution.

They won't split or crack (assuming they're the type made to resist the ravages of repeated freezing and thawing).

They have a good fire rating.

They carry some of the best warranties in the roofing industry -- 40 to 50 years is common.

You can even find antique tiles, salvaged from demolished buildings. And, while antique tiles will be durable (after all, they've lasted long enough to become antique), they usually won't come with warranties.

On the down side:

This type of roofing is expensive to buy and labour-intensive to install.

It needs to be supported by a strong roof structure.

You may not be able to buy it in some parts of the country.

You may have difficulty finding replacement tiles should you need to repair damage.

Some great resources for more information about tile roofs are, and an article entitled "Climate is key when choosing roof tile specs" at

Ceramic-tile roofing is gorgeous on the right style house and in the right setting. If you're interested but wonder about cost, brace yourself. I couldn't find Canadian pricing, but in the United States, you'd pay about $1,000 for each 10- by 10-foot square, "or about three times the cost of a standard three-tab shingle job." That's according to the website for This Old House, the U.S. television show and magazine. Factor in as well that, in the United States, many things cost less than they do in Canada.

It may be worth it, though, if you're concerned about the neighbours snickering at you. And if you ever decide to invite Donald Trump to visit, he'll feel right at home!

Elizabeth Rand-Watkinson is principal of Terrier Group,

which does interior designs.

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