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Zinc roofing skills in short supply

Thanks to Haussmann, couvreur-zingueurs are in constant demand in Paris

A couvreur (roofer) or restaurateur de toitures (roof restorer), is primarily concerned with the covered – as opposed to the structural – part of a roof.

Their work tends to fall into one of three categories: installation; restoration; and decoration. Many couvreurs work on historic buildings, restoring the roofs of domes and bell towers, as well as domestic properties.

Many roofers use a variety of materials, and consequently techniques, depending on the demands of each particular building, but some couvreurs are specialists, working with just one material, such as slate, ceramic tiles, or, in the case of the couvreur-zingueur, zinc.

Zinc roofers are particularly prized in Paris, where 80% of the roofs are covered in the material, which requires renewal every 50 years or so.

The profession came into its own in the French capital between 1855 and 1870, when Baron Haussmann built more than 30,000 apartment buildings, all with zinc roofs. Why? Zinc is inexpensive, relatively easy to install, and requires less wooden support than other materials, leaving room for additional rooms tucked beneath the eaves.

Couvreur-zingueurs are, nonetheless in short supply, with just 500 working in Paris and a shortage of young people keen to enter the profession. It is for this reason that the French roofers’ union (GCCP), with the help of a photographer inspired by the beauty of the Parisian skyline, Gilles Mermet, wants to register the trade with Unesco as part of France’s intangible cultural heritage.

Couvreurs generally are more numerous: in 2014 there were 13,199 roofing companies registered in France, with more than 32,000 employees.

Within these companies, the career structure is traditional: you will tend to start out as an apprentice on the minimum wage, then, as you gain skills, experience and qualifications, you will perhaps rise to become a team leader, or company owner. However, as there is a skills shortage, finding your first job should not be too much of a challenge.

To be a couvreur you need to have a strong interest in the heritage of buildings and a sensitivity to context. Technically, you need to be dextrous and have the ability to judge volumes accurately.

It is work that is suited to people who are happy being out in all weathers, who are fit and strong, and, because it may involve dangling in mid-air, have a head for heights. Couvreurs tend to work in teams, so it is not for the solitary-minded.

There are numerous qualifications for potential roofers, all of which include vital hands-on experience.

In professional lycées, students can study for a Certificate d’Aptitude Professionnelle (CAP) couvreur, or a Brevet d’Etudes Professionnelles (BEP) technique du toit, each of which takes two years.

Those wishing to specialise in zinc roofing can take a one-year Mention Complémentaire (MC) zinguerie after either of these courses.

There are 34 institutions currently offering this combination of studies across France.

Those seeking a higher level qualification can take a Baccalauréat Professionnel (BP), or, post-baccalauréate, could study for a Brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS) in charpente-couverture, available at l’académie de Besançon or l’académie de Lyon.

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