EWH X Rettie: Take care of the roof over your head
Rettie & Co. are proud to support the important work and conservation education undertaken by Edinburgh World Heritage and to feature their guest articles.
The roof on your home is important. This may seem like the understatement of the year, but for those of us living in Edinburgh's historic tenements, it is easy to forget your responsibility towards your roof.
Every property owner in a tenement is responsible for caring for its ‘shared areas’, which includes the roof. Some find this out the hard way when they get a bill for their upstairs neighbour’s roof leak. But we’re here to make sure you aren’t one of these people.
Also, in the context of Edinburgh as a World Heritage site, the distinctive Scots-slated pitched roofs stretching across the city skyline are among the most iconic features of the landscape and are part of the reason the city was given a UNESCO designation. Here we’ve broken down some of the most important aspects of roofing in Edinburgh and top tips for taking care of them.
Slate covers the majority of the roofs in the World Heritage Site, where distinctive 19th century West Highland blue slate is the dominant material. A well-slated roof can last up to 150 years, and regular maintenance is the key to this longevity.
- Find a vantage point that enables you to see hidden areas of roof and arrange for a roofer to make an annual inspection.
- Check the roof regularly for slipped slates, which allow water to penetrate the timbers below.
- A broken slate will need to be replaced, though finding a match can be difficult, as Scots slate has not been quarried since the 1950s. A good slater is likely to have a source of second-hand slates for patching.
Prior to the second half of the 18th century, Old Town building would have shed water straight off the eaves slates or tiles. Early downpipes would have been made in lead, but by the 1800s, cast iron rainwater goods were being mass-produced locally, for example in Falkirk and Bo’ness. Cast iron is made by pouring molten iron into sand casts and is still the process used today.
- Gutters and downpipes need to be checked regularly and cleared of leaves, debris, and vegetation to operate properly. A proprietary mesh leaf guard should be fitted at the top of downpipes to stop leaves blocking them further down.
- Look out for damp staining on walls, green algal growth on stone, or failed render.
- Cast iron can rust if it is not protected with paint. Check for signs of rust, especially at the back! When repainting, first remove rust by wire brush and sandpaper and then use proper paint designed for metal.
Dormers may be part of the original roof design in the Old Town, giving daylight to accommodation in the roof space and are often decorative, but in the New Town, dormers were seldom part of the original design. They were often expressly forbidden in the title deeds, but many were introduced soon after the buildings were completed and make good use of the roof space.
- Dormers are often exposed to extremes of weather and suffer from a lack of maintenance. An annual inspection of the flashings, main roof, and gutters is advised.
- Timber windows and fascias also need regular painting and are vulnerable at their bases. If you suspect that the fascia is rotten, push a screwdriver into the wood to test how soft it is.
- Stone wallhead dormers will need to be repointed regularly.
There is so much more to know about your roof, including how to safely carry out checks and information on identifying good roofers. You can read more about this in Edinburgh World Heritage's historic home guide on roofs.