Meet Mark Graham, Instructor of Advanced Topics and Current Issues in Low-slope Roofing

We had a chance to sit down with Mark Graham, one of the instructors for the new Advanced Topics and Current Issues in Low-slope Roofing professional development course at the College of Engineering.

Mark Graham is an experienced project engineer with expertise in the investigation, design, and repair of roof and waterproofing systems. He is an active member of ASTM’s Roofing and Waterproofing, Thermal Insulation, Fire Standards, and Performance of Buildings Committees, and works with ASHRAE, International Code Council, and NFPA.


Could you introduce yourself and the work you do?

My name is Mark Graham. I’m the Vice President of Technical Services with the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA). That’s the U.S. Trade Association for Roofing Contractors. We also have manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, architects, engineers… but primarily roofing contractors, and also some international folks. So I get to deal with our friends in Canada and also in Europe somewhat.

Are the codes in other countries similar to the codes here?

It’s really interesting. In the U.S., codes typically vary by state. They vary a little bit. Canada is distinctly different. European countries are going to vary on a country basis, so codes tend to be a little bit regional, but then also in the same extent very local. So from the teaching perspective or the education perspective, it gets a little bit complex.

In our class today, we have East Coast, West Coast people, North and South folks. So different things are trigger-points for different people from around the country. I just got through speaking about wind design, obviously a big deal in the coastline areas, not that big of a deal in the Midwest, for example. But [there are] new provisions in the code dealing with tornadoes. So all of a sudden, the Midwest is a big deal from the wind perspective, just like it was in Florida, for example, a few years ago.

How long have you been working in this industry?

Let’s see. I’m not going to do the math, but I believe it’s 40 years. It’s pretty much my entire professional career, started literally when I was still in college. Started working with a roofing contractor when I graduated and stayed with them. A few years in, I decided to actually take advantage of my engineering degree and went to work for a consulting engineering company, worked for them for seven years. And then in 1993, started with NRCA. It was intended to be a short-term thing, I thought it would build my resume nicely… That was 31 years ago.

What keeps this fresh for you? What keeps you coming back?

It’s interesting. I mean, the roofing business is materials, it’s technology and everything else. At the end of the day, what keeps me engaged is the people. Just a phenomenal group of people, typically small business owners or roofing contractors. So they’re fun to work with, tend to be very entrepreneurial.

The industry is changing so much. If I look at the industry today versus even ten or 15 years ago, compared to 30 or 40 years ago, it’s moving so quickly. So the training and education becomes just a huge component of what we have to do, and what I do. That’s basically my charge from NRCA, to try to keep the industry up to speed on what’s going on externally in the construction business.

So you work with the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), can you go a little more into what your work with them is?

My group, Technical Services Department which I head up, so I’m the senior staff person – I have a staff of six other folks that work with me and, quite frankly, make me look incredibly intelligent. Then we have a committee structure within the association of about 120 people, which is really interesting from my perspective, because that kind of becomes my focus group or my eyes and ears on the ground. They feed us information. We sit down face-to-face two times a year, conference calls an additional six to eight times a year, and basically decide on industry issues, what we’re working on, things along that line, what are priorities from our members’ standpoint.

We write a manual, the NRCA roofing manual, which is kind of the Bible of the roofing business. So I would have never thought 40 years ago that I would be a book publisher, but it’s amazing the amount we write. We also spend a lot of time with industry organizations, trying to get the industry to row the boat in the same direction, dealing with codes and standards – that’s incredibly time consuming. And then the fourth portion of my job is what I’m doing here at UW–Madison. I do a lot of training, education, and basically spread the word of what we learn from our members, code hearings, industry liaison work, and get that information out to the industry as a whole. And the University of Wisconsin–Madison is a fantastic venue for doing that.

Speaking of UW–Madison, you’re one of the instructors for the new course, “Advanced Topics and Current Issues in Low-slope Roofing.” What makes this class stand out from others of its kind?

What’s interesting with this class – and what I came to Mark Malkin and the engineering department leadership with in June of this past year – was a bit of a dilemma we had. Our basic roofing class, which the university has been doing for 35 or 40 years, is greatly successful, and we ended up with a very broad spectrum of attendees. I just mentioned in the class, I think our youngest or newest-to-the-industry student we’ve ever had was in the roofing industry for two days. On the other extreme, we’ve had people that have been in the industry for 45 years. So we actually end up teaching or training to those folks at an entirely different level, and trying to do them both in one class just got a little bit too burdensome for us.

So we went to Mark and basically said, “What would your thoughts be if we split it up or did two classes – do kind of a basic class, and then do an advanced class? In other words, target it at a little bit higher level,” and it turns out to be a stepping stone. Hopefully we can get folks to the first class, learn the basics, and then a year or two or five years later, get them to the advanced class. It lets us do a little bit more of a deep dive, or the term I just used, we’re going to really turn you into a “roofing nerd” by the end of these two days.

So for folks who maybe missed out on the enrollment for this course, you’re thinking of doing it again in the future? So people should keep their eyes open?

The plan would be, if things work out… to hopefully do this every year. I think we’re kind of targeting a March or early spring timeframe. We do the basic class the week after Thanksgiving… do this one in the early spring, and then let folks go out and have a good roofing season the rest of the year.

For people who don’t work in the roofing industry, what should we understand about roofing? We all have a roof on our homes or our buildings. What should we pay attention to when it comes to things like designing or renovating?

I think the thing to realize is that the roofing industry tends to be very complex. We have a lot of choices. We have a lot of decisions that can be made, and it’s gotten much more complex over the years from a building owner’s perspective or a homeowner’s perspective. There are some simple things that they can decide. If they’re going to be in the building for a while, longevity and performance is going to be a big thing for them. The codes, depending on what the building owner is doing with insurance, that will typically dictate some direction that they need.

But also today, roofing is somewhat of an environmental or other attribute concern. Back in the olden days, and I’m going to say “olden days” is even ten years ago, the primary function of a roof was to keep water out of a building. Now it’s a surface for rooftop mechanical equipment, photovoltaic equipment. Here in the University, you have a a lot of green roofs, you have plasma decks and things like that on roofs. So take a look at what your roof is really intended to be. Is it just intended to keep water out of the building? We can do that. If you also want to do something else with the roof, turn it into a great amenity space. The industry can do that. So there’s a thought process involved from the owner’s perspective early on.

How does roof selection impact things like the carbon footprint of a building?

The industry is just starting to get into the topic of sustainability and just starting to look at carbon, and the way the industry is looking at it is from a broad spectrum, kind of a “cradle to grave” viewpoint. That’s advantageous for some products, and it’s not for some others. So I think the underlying point that the industry is taking a look at is “let’s distinctly quantify our longevity.” So if we know how long product A is going to last, then we can add the cradle side of the equation in the beginning and the grave side at the end. It basically gets down to “if we can install a long-term performing roof, it’s going to help our situation very much.”

The other interesting thing with roofing though is roofing is one of the few building components that there can actually be a payback to. I say that in the context that if you have an energy efficient roof, you’re going to save on heating and cooling costs over the life of the building. We could do maybe a little better job in educating the industry on how to sell that payback concept. Let’s be a little bit more energy efficient, and then let’s save the building owner heating and cooling dollars during the life of the roof.

What are some current issues in low-slope roofing?

One of the topics is sustainability and beginning to get the industry to speak that language. It’s interesting, the roofing industry is probably about 140, 150 years old. We tend to be very old and set in our ways. So something like sustainability gets added to our vocabulary, we’re kind of lost because it’s new words. So part of what we’re doing actually in this class, about a quarter of the class is specifically dealing with introducing the industry to sustainability issues. So that’s probably one of the bigger issues.

The typical topics lately, wind in storms is a very large issue, whether it be hurricanes, tornadoes, the ratios in which we’ve seen in the Midwest lately. The effects of wind seem to be more frequent and more severe in some cases. So we need to keep the roof on the building in these large storms, and that’s a big topic for discussion.

Also, moisture control – and I’m not talking about Mother Nature moisture, rain or snow, but internal building moisture as we operate buildings. We as humans, give off a good amount of moisture, perspiration for example. We also have building occupancies which tend to be very wet, something with a pool or a manufacturing type of building. Where that moisture goes and how we manage it becomes a significant issue, and in a good number of cases, that moisture rises in the building up into the roof level. So how we design and manage that moisture and the roof becomes a big consideration for us.

It’s a lot more to think about than I thought!

It gets pretty complex and heady in a hurry.

Well I’m glad that we have people like you keeping on top of it.

The University helps. We have a great classroom of folks that are learning about it. It’s good working on it together.

As we speak, you’re actually in the middle of the course, we’re in-between sessions. What do you enjoy the most about being an instructor?

I do quite a bit of education and presentation work. I will probably do 50 to 60 presentations a year. Different audiences. What’s unique about the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s audience is they’re really committed and they want to be here. They’ve basically reached out to the University and made a commitment to be here. As a result, you have folks that are either really hungry to learn or they realize they need to move themselves up to the next level in their education. So to be able to present and teach to that audience is just a lot of fun.

We get audiences here that push back, ask a lot of great questions, ask a lot of very intelligent questions, and from a presenter’s standpoint, it’s just really cool. And for me personally, what is interesting is I actually attended this class back in the 1980s. Back then, the roofing business was pretty simple. We pretty much covered all of it in two-and-a-half days. Now we’re sitting down, we have to actually do it in two separate classes, and I’m sure by the end of the day we’re going to be saying, “Boy, I wish we could have covered this, I wish we covered that,” you know? So we’re probably going to be coming back to the University saying, “Can we do a third class now?” It’s just so much information, and the folks we get here are just sponges. So it’s a lot of fun from the education perspective.

As a past attendee, it must feel a little full circle for you now to be teaching this course.

Oh, it’s amazing, and I would have never thought back in the day I would be standing up front. It’s pretty cool.

As an instructor, what do you notice about the students’ experience in these courses? Why should someone consider enrolling in a professional development class here at UW–Madison?

The interesting thing specific to roofing is there is not a class like this anywhere else in the industry. So it’s not a competitive situation, that the University of Wisconsin–Madison is competing with anybody, it’s not. What we’re doing here at UW–Madison is unique in that we’re also going into great depth. So if you want to take a deep dive into the topic, if you want to have the full immersion of roofing over the course of a couple of days, this is really the only place that you can be.

Are there any new developments or top-of-mind topics in the roofing industry at the moment? What should we be looking for in the future?

If I had that crystal ball and would be able to tell you where we’re going to be three years or five years from now, you couldn’t afford to have me sit here. Also, if I would look back thinking where we would be five years from now, I could have never, never, never guessed it.

But we’re seeing increased insurance company involvement in our industry. Basically, because the insurance industry is dealing with claims and with weather related issues, it seems like claims are becoming more frequent and more severe. So the insurance industry is pushing back on the roofing industry. Also, from the government standpoint, whether it be local, state, or in some cases federal, the government has higher expectations of all construction trades. We need to work safer than we ever have. We need to be more energy efficient. We need to be more environmentally friendly. So, where that regulatory line is going to be drawn now, three years from now, five years from now is really not clear. It is going to become more restrictive, or the bar will be higher for us. Training and educating to that bar becomes a big challenge, and that’s a big undertaking for the industry to take on. We’re just fortunate the University is willing to help us as an industry to do that.

Are you up to the task of it?

I hope so.

Thank you for sitting down and taking this time to talk. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

It’s just great to be working with UW–Madison. I hope we can continue doing it and be a part of the great audiences and groups of students that we have here. It’s a lot of fun.


You can learn more about the new Advanced Topics and Current Issues in Low-slope Roofing course on the course website. Sign-up for our mailing list to receive information on upcoming dates and related offerings.

Learn More