My poor father was certainly taken to the cleaners by the local firm of builders who re-roofed my childhood home in Kent. One of the worst things they did was replace the castiron gutters with plastic, no doubt advising that cast iron ‘rusts’ and that, in any case, they ‘cannot be bought any more’. As plastic is an inferior, cheap material that splits and sags over time, when summer came, the creaking and cracking of it as it expanded became a feature of life in the rooms located anywhere near the eaves.
The black, glossy finish has now tarnished to a dull, opaque grey, and the fixings at the joins have become detached, spewing water over the building in times of flood. Should my father want to paint his gutters a more cheerful colour, he cannot, as the plastic will not accept paint. Happily, the ‘Mr Botchit’ builders were too lazy to replace quite a number of the cast iron downpipes, which have continued to function well, and are on target to outlive the plastic replacements.
When renovating your dream house, regardless of the building materials, the two key matters are cost and maintenance. But, having worked on numerous older buildings, I know that cast iron gutters can last for decades if properly painted and maintained. This may require scaffold access, and consequently there is a higher potential cost, even if it is combined with the re-decoration of windows and doors.
In my experience, it is easily worth it. Not least because with cast iron comes the opportunity to be inventive, both with profiles and downpipe brackets. Instead of the usual half circle, there are ‘ogee’ mouldings, shaped like a Classical cornice, and brackets can become an item of ornament rather than a mere banality. Castiron gutters are still readily available in many shapes and sizes, often matching the patterns ingeniously devised by the Victorians J and J. W. Longbottom (a suitably Dickensian name) has a particularly admirable range.
Historically, the most expensive rainwater goods were always of lead, often with highly moulded ‘hoppers’. These are the high level, box like cisterns that funnel the rainwater into the pipework below. They were often cast with the date of construction or the family arms. Lead hoppers are malleable, and if made sufficiently thick, should last for centuries.
There is, perhaps, a limit to how beautiful downpipes can be. All too often they are joined by drainage pipes and soil ventilation stacks, and can become quite disfiguring. No amount of jolly turquoise paint can save the day with the house in North Norfolk, which has been smothered with a veritable spaghetti bolognese of pipes. Sir Edwin Lutyens’ solution was to bury his rainwater pipes entirely into the fabric of the building.
This understandable, but fairly fatal response can allow leaks to remain undetected for years, causing untold damage. A few carefully located cast-iron pipes are therefore the best answer.