Built-in Gutters Should Be Carefully Inspected, Restored and Maintained

The New York-based Copper Development Association and Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, Chantilly, Va., recommend the use of copper sheet metal because of its workability and durability in a roofing application. Indeed, many linings have lasted 100 years or more. Lead-coated copper and tin/zinc alloy-coated copper may also be specified for a variety of reasons. Aesthetically, for example, the water staining caused by sheet copper can be minimized or controlled by using one of these alternative materials. Gutter linings are sometimes replaced with EPDM rubber or similar membranes because of a perceived cost factor. Although there will be initial savings, the linings will need to be replaced more often and—ultimately—cost more in the long run.

The cornice ornamentation and decoration beneath the built-in gutters is no small feat to replicate.

The cornice ornamentation and decoration beneath the built-in gutters is no small feat to replicate.

ELIMINATION

It is not uncommon for the historic homeowner or steward of a landmark structure to look at the estimated costs to restore built-in gutters and consider eliminating them from the roof system. Before doing so, he or she must consider the manner in which this will be accomplished: Will this require the plane of the roof to be altered? Will it be visible from the street? If so, is the property in a local historic district and would such a plan be permissible? Will new hanging gutters be added at the eaves, affecting the appearance of the cornice and further inciting the ire of local preservationists?

If it won’t incite the ire of local preservationists, what effect will the water have on the exterior of the building? How will the envelope be impacted? What problems could this cause in the basement or—worse—the foundation? Once these questions are realistically addressed, the preservation of the built-in gutter system seems a more attractive option, if not a necessity. An
architect or preservation consultant whose practice focuses on traditional building systems should be consulted before any such work is undertaken.

ONE MORE TYPE OF GUTTER: WOOD

By the 1850s, machine-planed, one-piece milled gutters were generally available at or near populated areas throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. The front or face of the gutter was cut to look like the ogee portion of a typical crown moulding. The gutter was nailed directly to the rafter tails, and seams were joined with sheet lead. Once trimmed out, the gutters looked like the crown of the cornice, often undetectable from the ground.

By the latter portion of the 19th century, most wood-framed houses were fitted with milled wood gutters. The Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts and other styles with complex roof planes featured turrets, varying roof pitches and gables that were pulled together by the wood gutters and mouldings of the building. Mills began to alter the ogee so a true miter could be joined with the crowns of the raking mouldings.

When it comes to wooden gutters, a lack of maintenance means failure is certain.

When it comes to wooden gutters, a lack of maintenance means failure is certain.

Prior to the 1880s, eastern white cedar was the material of choice for wooden gutters. As those resources were depleted, attention turned to the tall stands of Gulf cypress in the Deep South. Decay-resistant and plentiful, the depressed markets of the antebellum period made them attractive to the New England millworks. Many cypress gutters lasted 50 to 100 years. As old-growth sources ran out, attention focused on Douglas fir, plentiful on the West Coast. Although fir gutters are still available today, best practices warrant use of a more sustainable material, like western or Spanish cedar.

Wooden gutters must always be below the plane of the roof, lest sliding snow or ice rip them from the rafters. They need only be pitched 1/2 inch or so over the entire run of the gutter; gutters are pitched to encourage water to flow toward outlets, not to move debris. Where sections are joined, the surface is reduced 3/16 inch on either side of the seam. Pieces of sheet lead are set in a bed of asphalt cement and held in place by copper or other non-ferrous tacks. The same process is followed for the lead outlets. The new troughs are rubbed with linseed oil to resist moisture infiltration, a process that must be repeated annually.

MIND THE GUTTERS

Built-in gutters are a complicated system of the building envelope and certainly one of the most expensive to restore if maintenance is deferred. Because they are integrated into the structure, built-in gutter linings that fail will cause extensive damage to the cornice and, possibly, to the interior of the building. As a character-defining feature of historic buildings, they should be regularly inspected, cleaned, repaired and maintained. Regular inspection by a competent roofer is critical to the longevity and success of the roof drainage system. An architect or preservation consultant whose practice focuses on traditional building systems should be consulted before any dramatic alteration commences.

PHOTOS: WARD HAMILTON

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About Ward Hamilton

Ward Hamilton has provided historic-preservation consulting and contracting services for more than 100 buildings in Boston, New York and throughout the New England states through his company Olde Mohawk Historic Preservation, Melrose, Mass.

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