What sets the best apart from the rest is their ability to be creative, innovative and precise. Roofing contractor W.A. Lynch Roofing, Charlottesville, Va., cast itself in an elite category when re-roofing the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The roofing crew faced working on a historical building designed by Thomas Jefferson, protecting the valuable items inside and maintaining this campus landmark. “This one kept me up at night trying to figure out how we were going to do this flawlessly on a tight deadline,” said Tom McGraw, executive vice president of W.A. Lynch Roofing.

Sometimes projects like these deserve a spotlight to help other roofing contractors discover how to uniquely approach a historical project.


Jefferson based his design for the Rotunda on the Pantheon in Rome, and his intent was for the building to serve as a library. Construction was complete in 1826, and the structure did in fact remain the library until 1938. During that time, an electrical fire severely damaged the building in 1895. Only the circular brick walls remained, and the architectural firm hired to redesign the building took the opportunity to change the dome, pillar sizes and portico. By 1973, UVA wanted its original Rotunda back, and a $2.3 million project recreated Jefferson’s design.

It was during this restoration that a terne metal roof was installed in 1976. For the next 37 years, the roof was painted white to maintain the exterior’s integrity and look. In fact, UVA painted the roof every year just before graduation. The coating maintained the exterior metal, but interior problems had begun to cause roofing degradation. “Ventilation was inadequate, and interior moisture condensed on the bottom of the metal, eventually rusting through,” McGraw said. “UVA personnel made repairs over the years, but it became obvious that the roof was not salvageable.”

Many systems within the Rotunda were outdated, including HVAC, electrical, plumbing and audiovisual components. Considering the roof needed repair as well, school officials decided this was an opportunity to embark on another major overhaul of the Rotunda.

Tear Off

The renovation project was divided into phases, and phase one was roofing work. This was a joint venture project awarded to Christman-Gilbane, a construction manager in Reston, Va. Because of the annual coating, lead was a concern. Special Renovations Inc., Richmond, Va., was hired to remove the roof and follow lead-based paint abatement procedures. The least disruptive way to accomplish this was to remove the metal roofing with the paint remaining intact and send all metal components off for recycling.

Before any roofing work could begin, W.A. Lynch Roofing had to get creative. “I had to figure out a way to tear off a section of the dome, allow trades to have access to the deck and keep the inside watertight when no one was working,” McGraw said.

The concept McGraw came up with he likens to a woman’s hooped skirt. The roofing crew cut trapezoidal sections of EPDM membrane and installed them from the bottom to the top of the dome. This skirt-like tarp was configured out of eight pieces at the bottom, six at the midpoint and four at the top. The maximum cut sizes for each level were determined using a computer drawing. Creating the EPDM covering in sections made the tarp easy to handle and remove. “If we seamed it all together or made it in less pieces, the guys wouldn’t have been able to lift it,” McGraw added.

Each morning, the tarp was rolled up and secured. At the end of the day, the membrane was replaced and spliced back together.

New Roof

The new wood decking was placed over a Guastavino tile roof deck that was installed in 1895. It is this original decking that was causing roofing damage because it did not allow for any form of passive ventilation, which is vital for a roof. W.A. Lynch Roofing developed a concealed venting system at the intersection of the treads and risers at the seven steps in the roof, as well as at the top of the dome below the oculus. McGraw said, “Heated air has low density, so it will logically rise creating natural convection. This convection creates air movement below the roof and minimizes dead air spaces and the potential for condensation. The key to this is ensuring that you size the ‘intake’ venting similar to the ‘exhaust’ venting so that air will flow in an unrestricted fashion.”

Once the wood deck was installed, it was covered with 30-pound roofing felt and red rosin building paper. It was then time for the 20-ounce Flat-Lock copper, but a little ingenuity again had to come into play. McGraw explained: “Because this building is almost 200 years old, you have to recognize that not everything is as true and square as one might hope. There are seven steps that circle the base of the dome, and each tread and riser changed in height and width all the way around the building.”

With these unequal dimensions, how was the copper going to be properly installed? N.B. Handy Co.’s Richmond branch supplied more than 6 tons of 20-ounce copper to W.A. Lynch Roofing for this project. That equals more than 4,000 individual pieces of copper that were sheared in the roofing contractor’s sheet-metal shop to approximate dimensions and shipped to the jobsite. W.A. Lynch Roofing set up a make-shift sheet-metal shop on top of the scaffolding to finalize the cuts. The pieces were elevated to the rooftop and trimmed to the exact dimensions. Each piece also had its edges tinned and folded as required before being installed.

Timing Is Everything

When W.A. Lynch Roofing was hired for this project, the timeframe was set for September 2012 to July 2013. Delays set the copper roofing crew back to a start time of January 2013. This is when university officials began to think about upcoming graduation events and their desire to highlight the campus’ heritage. The Rotunda, surrounded by scaffolding, was not the backdrop envisioned for the May 2013 commencement. The university requested that W.A. Lynch Roofing finish its work in April 2013. “This was just short of impossible even if it wasn’t winter. But as a graduate of UVA, I recognized the basis of the request and agreed to it,” McGraw said. “So we doubled the manpower and went to a 10-hour-day, seven-day-a-week schedule. We divided the roof into four equal quadrants, each separated by an expansion joint, and put a crew in each area working simultaneously with the other three. We also added support personnel in our sheet-metal shop, as well as runners to keep the flow of material to the jobsite on schedule for the sheet-metal mechanics. In the final analysis, we made the schedule and completed our work within the owner’s request.”

In the end, McGraw and his team do not look for praise for this project. Rather, they look back and find it humbling to be part of Jeffersonian history. “After 40-plus years in the roofing business, I can usually find a roof similar to the one that I am currently doing somewhere in my background and draw from that experience going forward. Yet the Rotunda had no equal for me as it’s both a National Landmark and a World Heritage Site, as well as an extremely unique roof installation. It stood alone as a distinctive and iconic building, steeped in history. We were being given the opportunity to add another chapter in the history of this incredible building,” McGraw said.

 This degree of modesty might be another lesson for contractors looking to expand their innovative reputation. Historical roofing projects truly are unique. The way one approaches them is the key to a successful project and business.