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Real Estate

Pine home builder prefers homes without rain gutters

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Don Horn of Mars has a home without the traditional gutter system on the roof on Monday March 4, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Don Horn of Mars has a home without the traditional gutter system on the roof on Monday March 4, 2013. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Don Horn of Mars has a home without the traditional gutter system on the roof on Monday March 4, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Don Horn of Mars has a home without the traditional gutter system on the roof on Monday March 4, 2013. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

History and a desire to avoid unpleasant tasks can lead to the elimination of gutters and downspouts on houses.

While that form of design can fit into some plans, there also are reasons to stay with what has become the most-common method of handling water off the roof.

“Usually, you can't have enough gutters around here,” says Greensburg architect Lee Calisti.

Yet, home builder Don Horn has structured the greater part of a career building homes without gutters, including on his own new home in Pine.

John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather in Lawrenceville, owns a gutterless vacation home in the highlands of Fayette County.

Tom Bollnow from the Illinois-based National Roofing Contractors Association says gutterless building is a common and practical way of construction in colder areas such as the northern reaches of New England. It is a way of avoiding freezing problems at the roofline or gutters being pulled down by weight, he says.

But roofers such as Lou Holzer from Holzer & Yesko Construction in Robinson see so many potential problems they stay away.

“I can't remember the last time I saw a gutterless house around here,” he said.

But Horn has created many gutterless houses.

He has made a home-building name for himself in this area for the creation of historically accurate Colonial homes. That accuracy means the absence of features that were not on Colonial homes, such as doorbells — and gutters.

His own new home in Pine is based on a house from the Colonial town of Williamsburg, Va., and does not have gutters. But Horn says accuracy is only part of the issue.

“I like the (gutterless) look, but I really don't have them because I don't like the work,” he says, talking about roof-top visits to clean leaves, maple-tree helicopters and dirt out of the gutters and away from downspout drains.

But rainwater or melt from snow still need to be routed to storm drains, he admits. Without gutters, moisture runs from the roof into a French-drain-like system of gravel over a perforated pipe that collects the water and carries it to drain connections.

Those drains are right below the roofline, but when there are gables on a house, the combined angles can send water spouting out at the bottom, Horn says. That gusher requires a section of drain perhaps 6 or 8 feet away from the house.

Creating that kind of drain system can add to the price of construction, Horn admits.

He says he does not know what that price would be because it always has been part of the construction. It is hard for him to think of it as a separate item.

But he says the waterproofing and drainage system probably would end up costing “thousands.”

“It seems funny to have a cost for doing without something,” he says, talking about not having gutters.

Considering nearly every site in this area would be covered by municipal regulations about drainage, such a system becomes necessary, he says. It also becomes part of the issue of having such a system.

But Bollnow says another drainage issue to remember is the possibility of erosion if water runs away from the drains.

“It's easier to control water with gutters than without,” he says,

Another major part of having a gutterless system, Horn says, is making sure the basement is not only damp-proof, but actually waterproof. He coats the exterior of the foundation with a heavy synthetic that is flexible enough that even if a crack develops, the sealant moves into that opening. He also puts that coating above the surface so water running in the drain does not test the above-ground part of the foundation.

That heavier coating of waterproofing makes any change difficult on an existing house.

“Retro-fitting can be a problem,” Horn says.

Danger to the basement is part of the reason gutterless homes are seldom seen here, says roofer Holzer.

“Most houses here have basements, and you don't want that water sitting next to the foundation,” he says. “If you have a house built on a slab, you're OK.”

If the ground is angled toward the house, Bollnow says, sitting water that doesn't drain properly is a potential source of leaks.

Schombert, director of the rain-water management group, says his Fayette weekend home is on a slab. He is comfortable being gutterless because the amount of snow in that area is so great it probably would rip them down.

But he does admit he has another issue with that system, one that other roof experts say is a common gutterless issue: icicles.

While gutterless systems eliminate the threat of ice dams — when ice builds up in gutters and creeps up under shingles — they do lead to more icicles. Melting in areas that are quick to refreeze creates icicles that become larger and can be threatening.

Schombert says one icicle gets so big hanging over a large window that he puts a sheet of plywood over it so when it falls it doesn't break the glass.

Bert Elliott, program and product director of residential roofing for Ohio-based Owens Corning, says icicles are the only threat to shingle damage from gutterless systems.

Roofer Al Murray from Al's Roofing in Greensburg agrees icicles are a danger in that way and another. Besides being a threat to glass, icicles can get heavy and cause warping on fascia, he says.

“I don't recommend it,” he says of the system. “You see it in some big snow country, but, around here, I don't like it.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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