The Dry Garden: Custom gutters and the art of catching rain
To harvest rain from your roof for the garden, first you have to catch it. This requires gutters. Gutters are by no means universal appurtenances. Some home styles, such as Craftsman, Spanish and Colonial lend themselves so happily to gutters that they usually come with them. The rolled metal amounts to jewelry around the eaves.
However, put the same gutters on a modern home and you have a problem. The handsomeness of the structure is often defined by the lines of the roof and eaves. Gutters look dumpy; downspouts amount to vandalism.
The upshot? To those of us who live in midcentury homes and want to practice water conservation, the question of whether or not to put up gutters can feel like a choice between looking good or being good.
The realization that a modern house could indeed be artfully guttered came accidentally, during an October visit to a 1952 Smith and Williams home in the San Rafael Hills. The place was mobbed during an estate sale, and I did not get the lamp that I had come for, but walking out I noticed a rain chain hanging from a portico. Above, a flat fascia had been fitted with custom gutters that were so discreet you had to stare hard to determine that they were even there.
It took a succession of calls to find an installer willing to fabricate modern gutters instead of pushing the many rolled and crimped styles so suited to more bijou home styles. Deliverance came in the form of a metal artist named Ruben Ruiz.
What I gathered from the San Rafael house was that narrowness of the gutter was vital. It had to be six inches high to cover the triple-varnished fascia running around the eaves of my home, but no more than three inches wide. To make sure that he understood what amounted to an unusual request, Ruiz ran up a sample. It looked good. A down payment was made and the waiting game began to see if this attempt to retrofit a 1950 house with a 2011 gutter would work.
My nerves were so bad that I called the Los Angeles County Arboretum’s artist in residence for a second opinion. Leigh Adams raced over. As I scrambled up a ladder to show her the specimen, Adams squinted, stared and after an agonizing pause said, “The aspect ratio is perfect.”
As the installation date approached, Ruiz was hospitalized by appendicitis. In his stead, two of his metalworking team arrived shortly before Thanksgiving to begin installing the gutters. Stretches pre-formed in their shop arrived on the back of the truck, then were unloaded onto the front lawn to be welded together to fit the turns of the roof. Watching the two men cut angles to work the turns of the roof, I thought, “There’s spatial recognition, and then there’s spatial recognition between two guys each standing 15 feet up on ladders holding a jagged, 20-foot-long welded run of sheet metal.”
The monkey-see, monkey-do plan had been to paint the gutters to help them disappear against my house the way that the barely there gutters did at the San Rafael house. But shortly after the last weld was made, Adams arrived. In the glow of a streetlight, she declared, “Don’t paint them!” If the gray tiled roof was the hat of the house, Adams said, the new steel gutters amounted to a neatly rolled brim.
She was right. Ruiz’s gutters had perfect integrity. They made a decent little modern house that had been hand-built by an LAUSD architect in 1950 into one that forces me to wonder if LAUSD architects get their due.
Once the gutters were up, there remained the challenge of spotting the drainage points. Most conventional gutters are three to four inches deep. Mine were six, meaning that during a downpour they could fill up with enormous amounts of water and exert dangerous strain on the house. Working from a map that I had made showing how much water drained from each slope of the roof, and exercising an abundance of caution, we spotted drainage points at both ends of each eave line. These would be fitted not with clunky downspouts but with rain chains that could be removed during dry months –- or not.
My budget didn’t run to fancy rain chains, which are beautiful but can cost $12 a foot. Standard chain from the local hardware store would have to do, particularly since there was now more money to be spent at ground level.
Conventional downspouts shoot water onto concrete spillways, which typically then flush it to a driveway. A paved driveway then usually sends it to the street. I had a whole different kind of water park in mind. From the outset of the project, I had been haunted by a question put to me by landscape architect Jessica Hall: “Do you want to celebrate the water?”
No two gutter outlets would have the same treatment, I said to Ruiz, right, who by this time was getting used to weird requests and liking them fine. Moreover, I asked, had he ever considered fabricating flower-shaped water-catchers?
Yes he had, it turned out.
Next week: Working with a welder to rethink conventional downspouts and gutter extender.
-- Emily Green
The Dry Garden, Green's column on sustainable landscaping, appears here on Fridays.
Photos: Emily Green