Roof That Doesn’t Leak Is the Prettiest


The root purpose of every dwelling (one that dates back millenniums) is to provide shelter from the elements. Hence, an architect’s most fundamental charge is to design a weather-tight building.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Roof leaks are among the most common complaints I hear.

The embarrassing fact is that leaky roofs are endemic to architecture, whether modern or traditional, and the caliber of the architect makes little difference.


The occupants of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated houses have been obliged to drag out buckets, bowls and soup cans in many a rainstorm. Or as a colleague of mine once put it: “They don’t call it ‘falling water’ for nothing.”

Wright once received a call from an irate client who complained that the roof was leaking all over her dinner guests.

“Tell him to move his chair,” he responded.

To the complaint of another waterlogged client, he calmly declared: “If it didn’t leak, it wouldn’t be a roof.”

At least Wright fessed up to these shortcomings, however nonchalantly; the same can’t be said for the famed International Style architect Le Corbusier. Early in his career, the Frenchman designed a building with a conventional pitched roof. At the first snowfall, it leaked like a sieve, a result, it seems, of his own inexperience. In a classic piece of Modernist logic, however, he concluded that the whole concept of pitched roofs must be flawed and thereafter espoused flat roofs instead.

Given that these great architects had such a hard time designing watertight roofs, what chance do potential homeowners have of selecting a roof design that will keep them dry?

Here are a few common-sense suggestions that can help minimize the likelihood of leaks:

* Opt for a roof design that is as simple as possible. Leaks seldom occur in the middle of a roof’s flat surfaces or “field,” in roofing parlance. Rather, they tend to develop in the nooks and crannies formed where roof planes intersect or where roofs abut walls. Hence, the simpler the design, the fewer the intersections, the less likelihood of leaks.

Be especially wary of those craggy alpine roof-scapes favored by current architectural fashion. Peaks and dormers can become major leakage headaches a few years down the road.

* Minimize “penetrations.” In roof-speak, this term refers to pipes, vents, chimneys, skylights and any other openings that interrupt the roof’s membrane. Like intersections, they’re far more likely to develop leaks than the field of the roof. Minimize the number of vents and flues penetrating the roof surface and use a few large skylights rather than a lot of little ones. And don’t place skylights in roof valleys, where it’s difficult to seal them properly.

* Avoid built-up “flat” roofs whenever possible. Granted, built-up roofs are cheap, easy to construct and great for covering oddly shaped floor plans. However, without conscientious maintenance, which they seldom get, built-up roofs simply won’t stay watertight. A half-century of painful experience has borne this fact out, suggesting that our pitched-roof-loving forebears were probably right after all.

Sorry, Le Corbusier.


Arrol Gellner is an architect with 23 years of experience in residential and commercial architecture. Distributed by Inman News Features.