Let It Rain

Gutters and downspouts: They may not be sexy, but they're essential.
By Michael Haigley

I'm willing to bet your real estate agent or contractor didn't sell you on your beach house with a passionate pitch for gutters and downspouts. But they're terrific assets. These components of a passive maintenance system allow you to leverage a little time and money to get a lot of long-term protection.

The problem
Coastal climates pour buckets of rain on your roof. Unimpeded, water flows by the most direct route to the ground. Sheets of water scour your windows and siding and add to the prospects of moisture buildup and rot. Even worse, the runoff pounds to the earth along your roofline, creating opportunities for basement leaks and threats to the foundation.

The solution
Gutters and downspouts form a water-channeling system that puts gravity to work. The first step, especially when remodeling an older house, is to make sure you get all the benefits the system offers. If leaves and twigs are likely to blow onto your roof and end up clogging your gutter, you'll need a screen to catch debris. Even with protective covers, gutters should be cleaned by hand at least once a year to guard against buildup. You also should make sure the connections between gutters and downspouts are tight and unrestricted.

Form and function
Annoyed by the way gutters and downspouts mar the lines of their designs, some architects create clever ways to make these utilitarian systems blend into trim. I get nervous, though, when an architect hides drainage systems within the house's skin, obscuring them by siding or other treatments. I don't like water routing through areas I can't see or easily get to.

Gutter details
Most builders choose aluminum or vinyl, but some traditional coastal contractors still use wood. Because of the potential for moisture buildup between a wood gutter and fascia board, work crews often add thin strips of spacer board every 16 inches or so for breathing room. Gutter installers working with aluminum or vinyl use wire and other metal attachment systems to secure gutters and guard against water buildup. When you do your annual gutter cleanout, make sure these connections and spacers are doing their job.

Bottom line
At the bottom of the downspout I like to see at least a 1/8-inch-per-foot slope away from the house for adequate drainage. You're lucky if you have a natural slope and sandy soil. In low areas, you may need dry wells or pumps. Here's my best tip: Listen to the land. If you find yourself sitting around a table with your architect and contractor, sketching complex drainage systems to solve a problem, consider building your house elsewhere on the lot.

Prepared for it, you might even enjoy the rain.