Built-In Gutters: Inspection, Maintenance and Restoration
Built-in gutters may be the most complicated system in the building envelope, yet they may also be the most elusive when you start searching for information on them. Sometimes called Yankee gutters, box gutters or even Philadelphia gutters, it’s no wonder they remain a mystery to many.
Built-in gutter systems are actually built into the cornice structure and drain through internal or external leaders. They are not readily visible from the ground, further lending to the mystery of their design and function. Because they are integrated into the structure, built-in gutter linings that fail will cause extensive damage to the cornice and interior of the structure.
In “Traditional Rainwater Conductor Systems of the 18th and 19th Centuries,” Karen Dodge of the National Park Service states that built-in gutters were first adopted in North America during the 18th century in high-style Georgian and Federal-style buildings, usually institutional or commercial, where refined architectural qualities were desired.
While highly functional, built-in gutters also serve an aesthetic purpose. As structures were erected in the Classical order with elaborate cornices and entablatures, it became necessary to collect and channel rainwater without detracting from the architectural character of the building. Built-in gutters served this function well, hidden from sight and shedding water to the exterior.
Today, built-in gutters are typically constructed in the same manner as they’ve been since the 18th century. They are wooden boxes with bottoms sloped toward the outlets, where water is drained to leaders, or conductor pipes, that channel the water away from the building. The first gutters in this style were actually troughs or box gutters, carved out of wood and either rubbed with linseed oil or painted to protect the wood. Corners and seams were bonded with lead wedges. Needless to say, maintenance was critical to their success or failure.
Later, the advent of sheet lead allowed for broader gutters, as linings covered the wooden troughs. By the end of the century, copper became available in the United States, and it quickly proved to be a popular choice for gutter linings because of its durability and the functional nature of the material in a sheet metal application.
Inspecting and Maintaining Built-In Gutters
The most common signs of water penetration are peeling paint and decay in the wood soffit under the gutter. Other indications are dark stains and mildew and deteriorating masonry. Water infiltration may be visible in attic spaces or areas beneath the gutters where plaster and other interior finishes show water damage. The sooner a leak or area vulnerable to failure is addressed, the smaller the scope and cost of repairs. Cleaning out leaves and debris from gutters as often as necessary is essential for durability and proper performance.
Careful inspection by a competent roofer is also critical to the longevity and success of the system. He will look for defects such as localized damage due to fallen limbs or other debris, cracks from expansion and contraction at joints or folds and pinholes from corrosion.
Roofing tar and other bituminous compounds should never be used to patch, repair or coat gutter linings. It makes the condition of the gutter indeterminable, corrodes metal linings, will crack and fail quickly and cannot be removed without destroying the lining. Ice damming is not uncommon in the winter but should not be removed with sharp tools for obvious reasons.
Restoring Built-In Gutters
Restoration of long-neglected built-in gutter systems that leak and have caused decay in the cornice and roof structure is often complicated and can be costly. But once the work is completed, a regularly maintained, well-detailed system can last 60 to 100 years or more, depending on the life of the metal lining. A preservation architect or consultant should inspect the building, propose treatment options, develop working drawings and specifications and supervise bidding and construction. Temporary protection and permanent repairs should be performed by a roofer experienced in this specialty via work on historic buildings.
“We encourage restoration of historic built-in gutter systems,” says Michael Devonshire, a building conservator and principal at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates in New York City. “The use of modern building materials as an adjunct to traditional materials boosts longevity.”
Devonshire outlines the typical steps involved with a built-in gutter restoration.
• Strip off old gutter lining and 2 feet of the roof cladding above.
• Where rafter ends or lookouts are rotted, install sisters (new rafter ends adjacent to old ones) or scarf in new wood and sisters.
• Replace old wooden gutter bottoms with kiln-dried-after-treatment (KDAT) plywood treated for resistance to decay, minimal expansion and contraction and increased longevity; slope bottoms toward the outlet.
• Install gutter lining: an elastomeric ice-and-water shield on the bottom (not always required); building felt; a slip-sheet of rosin paper and copper on top (16- or 20-oz., depending on the dimensions of the gutter).
• Install on the roof decking above the gutter 2 feet of elastomeric ice-and-water shield (or copper flashing) and roof cladding over it.
• Repair or replace cornice moldings and interior structural elements as needed.
The Copper Development Association and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association 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 a tin-zinc alloy-coated copper may also be specified. Aesthetically, 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. While there will be initial savings, the linings will need to be replaced more often and – ultimately – cost more in the long run.
Eliminating Built-In Gutters
It is not uncommon for the owner of an historic home 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, they must consider the manner in which this will be accomplished: Will it 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, which may make the work impermissible? Will new hanging gutters be added at the eaves, affecting the appearance of the cornice and further inciting the ire of local preservationists?
If not, 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 answered, the preservation of the built-in gutter system seems more attractive, if not a necessity. An architect or preservation consultant whose practice focuses on historic structure envelope should be consulted before any such alteration is undertaken.
Built-in gutters are a complicated system in 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 interior of the structure.
A significant feature of the structure’s architectural character, they should be regularly inspected, cleaned, repaired and maintained. Careful, regular inspection by a competent roofer is critical to the longevity and success of the system. An architect or preservation consultant whose practice focuses on historic structure envelope should be consulted before any dramatic alteration commences.